The road to nowhere: the Delta variant and war for talent force US firms to delay office return plans

Some firms now eyeing Q1 2022 after postponing plans to go back to the office this month
Sunrise at Mesa Arch with special photographic processing

Office return roadmaps are lengthening Prochasson frederic; shutterstock

The road back to the office looks more winding than ever as US law firms continue to postpone their planned office return dates — some to as late as February 2022 — as a result of renewed health concerns over the Delta variant. 

Optimistic plans published earlier this year by a handful of top 100 US firms hoped to bring lawyers and staff back into the office in September, but the picture changed drastically for these firms as the Delta variant grew teeth over the summer. 

Among the latest firms announcing delays are major West Coast player Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Miami-based Holland & Knight. Wilson Sonsini has set the latest 2022 reopening date of any law firm yet, according to legal blog Above The Law, after its original plans to open 20 September were delayed to 25 October, which fell through over Delta concerns and vaccine hesitancy following the implementation of a vaccine mandate for those wishing to return to in-person work. 

Holland & Knight, meanwhile, told its lawyers and staff in an internal memo that a full-blown reopening in 2021 would be ‘unlikely’ and that employees would get at least a 30-day notice prior to a required return. 

Another firm opting to use the ‘standby’ approach for a potential return is Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which said it would give lawyers and staff three weeks' notice before bringing them back into the office after delaying its initial return date of 11 October. 

Dr Angela Mouton, chief executive officer of Montijo Mouton Consulting and US representative of Nicholas Scott Global Legal Recruitment, predicted that most law firms would likely make their full returns in the first quarter of 2022.

“It still depends on potential emerging variants and what vaccine mandates look like next year,” she said. “Big law firms are always reluctant to be the first one to put a stake in the ground, so once one lays their plans out, the rest will likely follow in their footsteps.” 

Mouton said another factor playing into office returns is the ongoing war for talent among US law firms. 

“If lawyers aren’t happy with how their firms are handling the situation, they have a wealth of opportunities to go find somewhere that better suits their needs. Firms might have to push very hard towards a form of work that is the most popular if they wish to retain their talent.”

Prior to the Delta upheaval, the majority of law firms that had made their office return plans public were all hovering around a 21 September return date, with the next most popular date being in October. 

A handful of firms, including Morrison & Foerster, Nixon Peabody and Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft are still gunning for an October return. All three firms will require their staff to be fully vaccinated in order to enter their premises. 

More than two thirds (68%) of large law firms in the US are now mandating vaccines for attorneys returning to their offices, according to data from legal technology firm nQ Zebraworks. 

Latham & Watkins recently joined the growing group of big law firms requiring their workforce to get vaccinated. In a memo circulated to all US personnel, the firm said it expects lawyers and staff to be fully vaccinated by 18 October unless they have been exempted on medical or religious grounds. It also revealed that 95% of its personnel have already verified that they are fully vaccinated, including 'virtually 100%' of partners.

Among the leading firms yet to join this grouping are Baker McKenzie, Jones Day and White & Case. 

Terri Pepper Gavulic, chief executive officer of TerraLex, said that most law firms are using vaccination rates among lawyers and staff as a key metric to outline their return to office plans while monitoring the data about other firms to determine the best course of action for their own workforces. 

“As soon as a firm reaches a majority of the workforce vaccinated, it’s easier to consider coming back to the office,” she explained. “But often the decisions are more subjective than objective, so client service, teamwork and efficiency outweigh metrics, especially among support staff.”

Gavulic said that while the hybrid models adopted by a number of firms including Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom, Covington & Burling and Dechert might be a feasible solution in the short term given the success law firms had adapting to remote work in the earlier stages of the pandemic, the legal industry will most likely see a return to the old model of working from the office more often than not. 

“In each organisation, some people will be able to work remotely or in a hybrid model, but past experience shows that resentments build up in a firm where not everyone has the same degree of freedom and flexibility. Many law firm leaders feel that without an in-person presence, there is a risky lack of supervision, training and oversight by partners,” she said. 

Regarding when a return to business as usual might be, Gavulic said she anticipates it will remain in flux. 

“Many law firms are already back in the office or making plans to return this month or the next but any event, such as a new mutation, could cause further delays,” she said. “It’s a movable target.”

Email your news and story ideas to: [email protected]