The Way Back: How Law Firms Are Planning for Post-COVID Office Life

Posted May 24th, 2021.

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Office returns, vaccination policies and long-term effects of the pandemic on the law firm workplace.

By ALM Staff

It’s been over a year since COVID-19 forced law firms to quickly move out of their offices, and firms have taken a broad spectrum of approaches when it comes to getting people back at their desks. Some rolled personnel back in over the summer in 2020, while others remain entirely remote, or as close to it as possible. With the vaccine rollout in full swing, still more are planning their next steps for a safe return, and permanent changes to their offices based on lessons learned in the past year.

Our reporters will continue to cover these changes and trends. This page will be updated regularly with new developments. Please send any updates and additions to: BusinessOfLaw@alm.com


Firm-by-Firm Office Return Plans

Baker & McKenzie

North America CEO Colin Murray sent an email to personnel May 3 indicating that the firm was targeting Sept. 1 for a return to the office. Murray anticipates that some degree of work from home will continue.

Baker Hostetler

Baker Hostetler is planning a two-phased approach to the return to the office. By July 12, the firm intends to begin increasing capacity in all offices: those that are currently operating on one-third personnel rotations will expand to 50% capacity, and those not currently open will aim for one-third rotations. In both cases, attendance will be voluntary. The firm is shooting for a firmwide full reopening on Sept. 7. From that point on, remote work will be an option, but it won’t be subject to rigid guidelines. “We’re encouraging people to be in the office and reminding them that their job requires them to be in the office, but not necessarily every day of the week,” said chairman Paul Schmidt. The firm also has a task force specifically evaluating staff roles to determine which can be made more remote or hybrid.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner

The firm said in March that it had launched a task force to evaluate the timing of a wide-scale return to the office as well as the future of virtual work, but any changes won’t happen until June 30 at the earliest.

Cahill Gordon & Reindel

Lawyers and staff are not expected to return to the office until January 2022, firm leader William Hartnett said in late March.

DLA Piper

In a statement on April 23, the firm said it plans to transition to a period of voluntary telework on June 7. “At that time, the decision to work remotely or not will be left entirely up to each employee and safety protocols will remain in place to protect the health of all our workers,” the statement said. “We have also strongly urged every member of our workforce to be vaccinated at the first opportunity.”

Additionally, the firm is currently targeting Sept. 7 for a return to U.S. offices. The firm noted that it has been “fully operational” throughout the pandemic, but most people have been working remotely. ”Given the success of remote working, we anticipate continuing to offer flexible work arrangements,” the statement said.

Epstein Becker Green

Epstein Becker Green intends to begin a phased return-to-work plan for staff on June 15 in which they will be expected to spend one day each week in the office until the middle of July, after which the expectation will rise to two days, and then continue increasing until they hit a full schedule in the beginning of October. Attorneys do not have set requirements for attendance, but they are being asked to follow similar schedules to the staff they work alongside in order to get everyone comfortable with a return.

Hogan Lovells

The firm is currently telling personnel in the U.S. to prepare for a return to the office in September, Northern California managing partner Nate Gallon said in April.

Jenner & Block

Jenner will be allowing employees to return to U.S. offices, on a strictly voluntary basis, starting June 7, the firm said, adding that this is subject to government occupancy restrictions and social distancing, as well as individuals being vaccinated or having a negative PCR test. This is Phase 1 of a plan in which the ultimate goal is to have as many offices as possible return to normal occupancy levels, with appropriate flexibility, and to have the office as the primary workspace, the firm said.

Lowenstein Sandler

In a firmwide email distributed on April 30, Lowenstein chair and managing partner Gary M. Wingens announced that the firm is welcoming all personnel to get reacquainted with working in the office again. Beginning July 6, teams are encouraged to return to the office on a voluntary basis a day or two each week—or more, if they wish—with a general expectation that, after Labor Day, people will be working regularly in the office at least three days per week.

Wingens said, “Our collective challenge is to chart a course forward that allows us to continue to provide exemplary client service, ensure great career development opportunities for our people, and maintain our strong cultural bonds informed by our core values, while providing our people with greater flexibility to work in environments where they believe they can be most productive.”

Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin

Marshall Dennehey brought its Pennsylvania workforce back into the office Monday, May 3, with attorneys expected to work in the office three days a week to keep density levels down, according to the firm’s president and CEO Mark Thompson. Thompson said that out of the firm’s 20 offices across six states, the Pennsylvania offices are the last to be required to return from remote work, and that staggering days lawyers are in the office has been successful.

Milbank

Chairman Scott Edelman said he doesn’t expect a mandatory return to office until September at the earliest, “but as people get vaccinated, we are encouraging them to start coming back in the office, and we’re starting to see a pickup.”

Nixon Peabody

The firm said it is targeting a July 6 return, although it will reevaluate at the end of May. If the firm decides to not return in July, it expects to push the date to September.

Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe

Chairman and CEO Mitch Zuklie said he’s optimistic about returning around Labor Day in September, but that the firm hasn’t made a final decision yet.

Perkins Coie

Firm personnel can continue working remotely until October, per an April 9 announcement. Amid plans for a 24% contraction in the firm’s total footprint, the firm plans to adopt a “hybrid workplace” working model allowing a mix of in-office and remote work in October. That will mean a mix of office sharing, hoteling and reverse hoteling for many in the firm, according to a March interview.

Reed Smith

Reed Smith is fully reopening its 17 U.S. offices on September 7, when lawyers and most staff will be expected to work in the office some of the time. The firm is easing back into office life with its “Welcome Back Wednesdays” program in June, as well as increased capacity in offices in May.

Additionally, the firm has set up new flexible work schedule guidelines for attorneys to work remotely sometimes, while they are expected to be in the office on a regular basis. And staff are being designated into three groups as office-based, hybrid and fully flexible workers.

Outside the U.S., offices are following local guidelines to plan their reopenings, and they continue to use a reservation system for people who want to work in the office. The flexible work policy is global.

Ropes & Gray

The firm has unveiled a three-stage return to office plan, according to an internal memo from chair Julie Jones obtained by ALM. Phase one, which has been in place since February, allows office use when necessary. In phase two, which is currently scheduled to begin on Sept. 13, the firm will encourage lawyers to spend one to two days a week in the office. And in phase three, which will likely begin in November and continue through 2022, the firm will recommend at least three days a week in the office for lawyers. Jones also does not expect the firm will ever mandate a five-day a week in-office environment.

Sanford Heisler Sharp

Chairman David Sanford said in an email to the firm that beginning June 1, all offices will be officially open, and everyone will be “welcome to return for as much or as little as you like.” Everyone returning to the office beginning June 1 is required to be vaccinated and will continue to follow COVID-19 safety protocols.

Beginning Sept. 9, Sanford wrote, “everyone will be  expected to work in the office for at least some of the week.”

“Please plan on being in the office and, therefore, plan on moving back to the city of your assigned office by September 7 and making any logistical and practical arrangements necessary to ensure your physical presence in the office,” the email said.

Shearman & Sterling

The firm’s personnel won’t be expected to return until after Labor Day, according to a firm spokesman on May 10. After surveying staff earlier this year, the firm is still crafting its remote working policy, but it’s expected the arrangements will be more flexible for remote work than pre-pandemic times.

Sullivan & Cromwell

Sullivan & Cromwell is encouraging lawyers and staff to start working in the New York and Washington, D.C., offices July 6. “It’s not a forced return date, but it’s strongly encouraged,” chair Joseph Shenker said in an interview. Vaccination is not a requirement for the firm’s members, but Shenker said it’s “strongly urged.” Overall, Shenker said he anticipates greater flexibility of lawyers creating their own office schedule and greater use of remote work, compared with pre-pandemic times, but he doesn’t anticipate any official policy on hybrid work to be released.

Vinson & Elkins

While the firm has not set an exact reopening date, lawyers were informed in a memo in early May that due to positive trends with vaccination levels and reduced community spread of the coronavirus, the firm is encouraging those who feel sale to return to work in the office, consistent with local restrictions. For the near future, no attorney is required to return to the office unless necessary to meet client needs, and the firm will continue its policy of allowing much of the staff to work remotely.

The firm does anticipate returning to the office on a more regular basis later this year, but given investments in technology, and the experience from a year of working remotely, the firm will continue to be flexible about where people work. In an interview, chairman Mark Kelly said having people back in the office is necessary for long-term associate development, and also to maintain the firm’s culture.

Vaccines are not required to return to the office, Kelly said, but it is encouraged. He understands that a “significant number” of lawyers and staff at the firm have already been vaccinated.

White & Case

White & Case will continue to support remote working in all of our U.S. offices through Labor Day.  This means that if you are able to do your job remotely, we will not ask you to return to the office until September 7.  Starting September 7, we will offer a flexible approach to remote working through the end of 2021, asking that you spend two or three days per week in the office.

Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

The firm will not require its attorneys to return to the office through 2021.

Willkie Farr & Gallagher

The firm will not require its attorneys to return to the office through 2021.

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