Weil, Dickinson and Sanford Heisler Update Office Policies Amid Shifting CDC Guidance

Posted July 28th, 2021.

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Weil told lawyers and staff that “the same rules that applied earlier in the pandemic before the lifting of restrictions will be reinstated, effectively immediately.”

By Andrew Maloney

What You Need to Know

  • After the CDC updated its mask guidelines, some law firms are adjusting their own office policies.
  • Sanford Heisler Sharp, Weil Gotshal and Dickinson Wright leaders say they’ve made office changes.
  • Office returns could be delayed, and the case for mandatory vaccinations could become more forceful, observers say.

Several law firms are reinstating COVID-19 safety efforts in light of rising infection rates and the CDC’s announcement this week that fully vaccinated individuals should wear masks indoors in certain parts of the country.

And some firm leaders and legal industry observers said office return dates could be pushed back even further due to a surge of COVID-19 cases, brought on by a more transmissible variant of the virus and low vaccination rates in some areas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on Tuesday—recommending fully vaccinated people to wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission—will likely ultimately shift office policies in large and small cities across the U.S. seeing higher transmission now.

Weil Gotshal & Manges was among those updating its office policies. The New York-based firm had previously said in late May said that lawyers and staff don’t have to use masks if they’ve been vaccinated.

“Based on the threshold levels set forth by the CDC, all of our offices in the United States -– with the exceptions of Washington, D.C. and Princeton –- are currently considered substantial or high transmission areas,” according to an internal memo on Wednesday from the law firm’s general counsel’s office that was obtained by Law.com.

“Given the new CDC guidance, the wearing of masks will be required by all individuals regardless of vaccination status for all our U.S. offices, with the exceptions of Washington, D.C. and Princeton,” the memo said. “The same rules that applied earlier in the pandemic before the lifting of restrictions will be reinstated, effectively immediately.”

The Weil memo said this meant that all individuals must wear a mask at all times while in the firm’s offices, unless they are alone in their own enclosed office. “To underscore, in the event that a group of fully vaccinated individuals is gathered together in an office or conference room, everyone must wear a mask,” the memo said.

The memo added that Weil’s return-to-office task force is considering “what, if any, impact this may have on the full reopening of our offices and the related policies surrounding our return” and the task force will make recommendations to the firm’s management committee.

“We hope that this is just a setback and that our communities are able to effectively prevent and control the spread of the virus,” the memo said, adding Weil will “continue to take the safest and most conservative approach as we move forward.”

Other Am Law 200 law firms had also previously said they wouldn’t require masks in office for vaccinated people, including Husch Blackwell and McDermott Will & Emery. Representatives from those firms did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday on the updated CDC guidance.

Meanwhile, employees at plaintiffs firm Sanford Heisler Sharp were told in a memo Tuesday they would be required to wear masks again at all times while in the office, except while alone at their desk or when there’s no risk of others coming within six feet.

Firm chairman David Sanford noted in an interview Wednesday that while only two of the firm’s six offices—Nashville and New York—were in areas of “substantial” or “high” transmission that would require indoor masking for fully vaccinated individuals, it will be mandated in all six of the firm’s offices.

“As I’ve said before, this is a fluid situation that’s constantly changing, and we’re trying to be conservative,” Sanford said. “And our first priority is the health and wellbeing of all our people. I don’t think it’s much of a sacrifice.”

He noted the firm’s return-to-work policy—which is partly based on attorney tenure, generally requiring those with the least tenure to spend four days in-office and more experienced lawyers to spend about two or three days—will still go in to effect Sept. 9, but it’s “conceivable” that timeline will change.

“It really does depend a lot on transmission rates. it depends on the research at the time regarding breakthrough transmissions, and the status of the science,” he said. “Right now, there are still a lot of open questions.”

Dickinson Wright, No. 126 in the latest Am Law 200, on Tuesday limited attendance in its office in South Florida—where transmission of the virus is higher—to those who’ve been fully vaccinated, firm CEO Michael Hammer said Wednesday, and more action could be on the way.

“We’re going to talk tomorrow about the specific updated guidance on the masks,” he said. “It’s my hope we won’t necessarily need to institute the masking in offices where we’ve limited access to the fully vaccinated, but we may.”

The firm has a nearly 90% vaccination rate, Hammer added, and attendance in its offices is still voluntary until Sept. 7. He said the surge of COVID-19 cases, catalyzed by the contagious delta variant, also changes the firm’s thinking on in-person events for the fall. Hammer said they’ll likely be limited to fully vaccinated individuals “if this trend continues.”

And the firm’s target date on bringing people back more regularly could change, too, if the situation gets bad enough, he added.

“If we were just dealing with a surging, out-of-control problem, like we had last year, we would certainly consider [pushing the date back],” Hammer said, noting that while the firm’s policy allows for flexible work, there are some lawyers and employees who need to be in the office at least part of the week. “And if we run into a situation where transmission rates are so high, we probably wouldn’t force them back into the office under those circumstances.”

Michelle Foster, managing partner of the legal recruiting firm The Foster Group in New York, said she thinks law firms have generally been thoughtful and careful in evaluating evidence on COVID-19 and crafting return policies accordingly. But she said the latest surge in cases and updated guidance could force more of them to switch from strongly encouraging vaccination for their employees to requiring it.

“At least from everything I’m seeing, there’s a big push toward getting as close to 100% as possible having the vaccine,” she said.

Sanford, whose firm is mandating all employees be vaccinated before returning to work, said the latest COVID news is “extremely disheartening.”

He said as long as people are refusing to get vaccinated, “we’re going to be in a situation that is destabilizing as a country, and it will make it a lot more uncertain as to when we’re ultimately going to come out of this pandemic.”

Christine Simmons contributed to this report.

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