Law firms, as well as the attorneys and business professionals who comprise them, are now all over the map when it comes down to the future of work. And the latest COVID-19 wave is magnifying the divides, which are arising not only between firms but within firms.
Omicron, the highly contagious COVID-19 variant now raging across the U.S., is reportedly less lethal. For those who are fully vaccinated and boosted, as many attorneys and business professionals at large law firms are, this variant is producing much milder symptoms.
Some call that a stroke of good luck, and after two years of living through a pandemic, they see this development as an opening to start returning to normal. But others see a remarkably infectious new variant that still poses a threat to the unvaccinated—which includes all children under the age of 5—those with co-morbidities and the elderly.
That divergence of views is reflected in law firms’ office attendance policies. Some have delayed office returns by a month or two, or perhaps indefinitely. Others have forged ahead with in-office plans.
Within each organization as well, views are increasingly diverging. A firm of hundreds or thousands of people is not a monolith, regardless of the strength of its culture.
As Kent Zimmermann, legal management and leadership consultant at Zeugauser Group, said, “People are all over the place.”
A Firm Divided
There is a tendency to think of law firms as singular entities that have a singular culture. Cooley, for example, thinks one way, while White & Case another, and so on and so forth. But that isn’t the case.
“There is a diversity of views in this country about how to move through this surge, and most law firms are a microcosm of those diversity of views,” Zimmermann said. “Within the same firm you have some people questioning the need for hand sanitizers and masks while others are hard set against even coming into the office.”
Those opinions can stem from views on work-life balance and efficiency, not just public health and personal safety.
Some junior associates have never worked in the office on a regular basis and they have been craving the mentorship and training that comes from being in the same room as a senior partner. Some senior partners don’t feel the need to be in the office as much because they have already solidified relationships with clients and colleagues.
Meanwhile, each individual attorney and business professional at any seniority level has their own preference for what arrangement best allows them to work efficiently or enjoy life.
“It is still too much of a controversial decision and charged topic to be making blanket decisions that impact so many people, because within those groups there will be a variety of opinions based on health circumstances,” Dan Binstock, partner at legal recruiting firm Garrison & Sisson and founder of lateralpartners.com, said.
He said, for the time being, caution will likely prevail, with most firms opting for a hybrid approach to appease the most people. But even then, the “most” people isn’t exactly an overwhelming majority.
Stephanie Biderman, partner at legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, said a recent survey her firm conducted found that about 60% of people prefer a hybrid arrangement—a majority, yes.
But about 20% prefer fully remote work and about 20% prefer fully in-office work. That’s not an insignificant number of people.
“You aren’t going to please everyone,” she said. “Not everyone will be thrilled with whatever decision is made.”
The Future of Work
Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris Glovsky and Popeo put its formal return to office on indefinite pause, the firm announced in late December. Sheppard Mullin and Goodwin Procter pushed their timelines back to Feb. 7 and March 14, respectively.
Cooley is continuing its flexible and remote-work policy until the end of the first quarter, Morrison & Foerster has made attendance optional until at least Feb. 14, and Loeb & Loeb postponed its office return indefinitely.
Trial firm Susman Godfrey is also postponing its return, which was slated for January, likely until February. Armstrong Teasdale encouraged people to work from home until the end of January, “if they are able.” And Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr said its offices are still open on a voluntary basis, but “we are deferring the launch of our firmwide hybrid model until COVID transmission levels recede.”
But Zimmermann said he works with some firms that are sticking with their plans to be in the office this month, and still plan on holding in-person partner meetings in January and February.
He said he expects others to follow the lead of companies like Goldman Sachs, which essentially said people should stay home for the next couple of weeks.
Cozen O’Connor and Baker Hostetler have taken that approach, saying people will be required to return no earlier than Jan. 28 and Jan. 18, respectively. Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath said employees who work on a hybrid schedule can continue remotely until Jan. 18.
But some firms, like Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, are taking another approach. When Quinn announced in late December that it was going to offer remote work on a permanent basis, it essentially was saying that the future of work, even after the pandemic, will be very different from the traditional law firm.
“I think for a while there have been differences in philosophy among firms,” Biderman said. “Some are more progressive, some more conservative. But for most firms we are still in a holding pattern for what that might look like.”
Biderman said she expects there to be a “lid for every pot” once the pandemic subsides, with various firms having differing policies on what they deem acceptable for future work. She pointed to a managing partner she recently spoke with, whose firm has a hybrid policy.
“He said they don’t want to hire completely remotely and if they started making exceptions, it would ruin their culture,” Biderman said. “He said there will be plenty of places for people to go if they want fully remote, but ‘it won’t be here.’”
Justin Henry, Dan Packel and Brenda Jeffreys contributed to this report.