More than two years into the pandemic, and with the vast majority of lawyers and staff vaccinated, law firms appear to have learned to deal with COVID-19 surges with less disruption.
The omicron variant has forced dozens of law firms to either halt their plans for hybrid work or (again) delay a return to the office. But firms are taking varying approaches. Some hold the belief, supported by data, that the surge is likely to peak later in January and recede quickly as it did in South Africa. Others, burned too many times by the COVID uncertainty, are opting not to set a date at all.
At “those firms that had plans in place to return, either at the end of 2021 or early in 2022, there’s a bit of wait-and-see mentality with back-to-office plans,” said Scott Yaccarino, legal recruiter in New York at Empire Search Partners. “Firms are being more flexible and waiting to see when it peaks,” he said.
Still, he said, the Omicron surge doesn’t appear to be having a big impact on law firm business.
“Firms are coming out of the new year as busy as they ended last year,” he said. The latest delays are not shaking people like they used to because “they’ve done this already.”
“I’m having conversations on a daily basis with people who have COVID,” Yaccarino said, and those people aren’t sidelined for a week with bad symptoms, like they would have been earlier in the pandemic. Yaccarino said he’s now having business calls with lawyers and colleagues who are capable of working through a mild illness or missing just a day or so to be sick—although he acknowledged that everyone has a different experience with the virus.
Many health experts are optimistic that January will represent the peak in cases, citing the quick rise and fall of the variant in South Africa. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffery Shaman predicted a peak through the first three weeks of this month, followed by a rapid decline, though he notes the decline is “not guaranteed,” given South Africa’s relatively-younger population. In fact, new variants may continually emerge, spiking at different times throughout the years.
Other professional service industries, including many of the banks that top Big Law firms count as clients, are hoping for the same. JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and Jefferies Financial Group Inc. have told employees they can start 2022 at home. Goldman, for example, is targeting a Jan. 18 return date, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Still some law firms have opted to not pin their return to a specific date, perhaps bruised from the uncertainty the pandemic continues to bring, or perhaps in following clients in other industries that have embraced remote work.
Debevoise & Plimpton and Saul Ewing, for example, count among those firms. In a statement on Thursday, a Saul Ewing spokesperson simply said the firm is delaying its hybrid return until “until COVID transmission levels recede.”
And while it seems that leaving the date open may contribute to more uncertainty and anxiety, legal wellness consultant Jennie Malloy says being transparent and admitting that there’s not clear cut answer may be better.
“There’s some power in transparency and vulnerability in saying that we don’t know and it’s OK we don’t know. To try to make plans when there is no plan, that’s going to give people anxiety. It’s almost like we can relax in knowing that there is no answer and not trying to pursue and exact answer,” Malloy said.
Legal consultant Kent Zimmermann suggested firms may be better served by not believing that the country and the globe are on the precipice of normality, given that every prediction so far has been wrong. Several high-performing firms have long held flexible policies that do not require any in-person attendance, he said.
The fact that so many firms had tremendous financial fortunes in 2020, all while remote, lends credence to the idea that remote work does not affect performance. Instead, what in-person interaction may offer is a significant cultural and training advantage, Zimmermann noted. He added that firms would have to figure out how to ensure that remote personnel are not put at a disadvantage when it comes to advancement, particularly those from underrepresented groups.
“I say that because, in most firms, excellence in bringing in work drives advancement. But to do excellent work on complex matters usually requires gaining the trust in the people of assign that work. To gain that trust, historically in-person relationship building has played a significant role,” Zimmermann said.
But at what point are those advantages mandatory in-person work outweighed by the fact that COVID-19 surges may become a regular part of everyday life for years to come?
“Every time a firm has put a date down for return to office normalcy they’ve had to revisit it, and I think that’s more than likely to continue to happen,” he said.