07 Oct 2021

US law firms push for partial office returns in coming weeks despite delays and Delta fears

Wall Street's Cravath Swaine & Moore to make 'soft return', Ropes & Gray and Sidley Austin set November dates

Wall street skyscrapers


Three US law firms have handed down new return-to-office instructions to their lawyers and staff, eyeing return dates in the coming weeks in the hope of safely going back to business as usual amid concerns over the Covid-19 Delta variant. 

In a memo obtained by legal blog Above The Law, Wall Street’s Cravath Swaine & Moore said it would be retooling several aspects of its office return plan to make it a ‘soft return’, meaning it will encourage lawyers and staff to return to the office ‘at a cadence they feel comfortable with’ through year-end, rather than requiring people to come in for a mandated number of days. 

Cravath, which is currently eyeing an 18 October return date after delaying its initial Labour Day target, has kept its New York and London offices open to fully vaccinated individuals since May and announced it would be requiring all employees to be fully vaccinated in order to return to its physical offices in any capacity back in August. 

In addition to its vaccine mandate, Cravath is requiring masks to be worn in common areas and will continue to follow local guidelines on mask-wearing and other safety protocols as it phases its employees back into its premises. 

Another firm set to forge ahead with office return dates is Boston-based Ropes & Gray, which announced it would ask lawyers to work in-person for one or two days a week starting 8 November after delaying its previous office return date of 18 October. 

The two firms cited similar reasons for sticking to their guns, including the importance of togetherness and interaction between colleagues, while still recognising the logistical hurdles that have arisen among employees the longer the pandemic has raged on. 

Both Cravath and Ropes & Gray will go fully remote the week of Thanksgiving and the last two weeks of the year. Cravath’s offices will remain open during the holiday periods should lawyers or staff wish to come in anyway. 

Sidley Austin, meanwhile, is also among the latest of the AmLaw 100 firms to set a firm return date of November 1, when lawyers will be expected to make a ‘dedicated effort’ to spend the majority of their working days in the office. 

The Chicago firm is requiring staff to be working ‘regularly’ in the office by 1 November, while its lawyers will be awarded a ‘fair amount’ of flexibility with regards to where they perform their work, according to the firm’s management committee. 

Sidley is among the shrinking cohort of US firms not requiring its employees to get vaccinated before coming back to the office, but it has emphasised it ‘strongly encourages’ lawyers and staff to get the jab and will look to remain compliant with President Biden’s issued directive on vaccinations for large employers, Above The Law reported. 

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. Notable exceptions to this grouping are Baker McKenzie, Jones Day and White & Case. 

A handful of other 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.