Back to the Office After COVID-19: How are Law Firms Preparing for It?

Attorneys entering the office wearing protective face masks due to covid-19

More than 52 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 44 percent are fully vaccinated. As a result, America is reopening, and so are the law firms.

Like most workplaces, law firms faced an unprecedented situation in 2020 that has continued into 2021. First, they had to implement a system for lawyers to work remotely. Now, they have to make plans for post-COVID office life. What measures are they taking to reopen their offices?

The Hybrid Approach

There is no doubt that work-life after COVID-19 will change.

Although the pandemic has been devastating in many ways, law firms have benefited from the remote working environment as well. Travel expenses have come down with the predominance of online meetings. Office maintenance costs have decreased due to minimal electricity consumption. Some law firms are even planning to reduce office space as a measure to help save money; real estate is a law firm’s biggest expense (after wages), so smaller office spaces could save millions.

Law firms have learned that lawyers don’t need a big, private workspace to serve their clients. Even before COVID-19, lawyers didn’t stay in their offices all day, and senior attorneys typically didn’t even come into the office every day.

According to McKinsey Research, 38 percent of corporate executives said in a survey that they “expect their remote employees to work two or more days a week away from the office after the pandemic, compared to 22 percent of respondents surveyed before the pandemic.”

As the threat of COVID-19 subsides, it makes sense for law firms to adopt a hybrid model, allowing lawyers to work from home a few days a week and come to the office for the remainder.

Flexible Work Culture

In the last year and a half, most law firms have transitioned out of the office space. As a result, many lawyers have acclimated to remote working. Now, however, U.S. law firms are able get them back to the office as the pandemic winds down. Some have asked lawyers to return to the office after Independence Day. Others have asked them to rejoin the office after Labor Day.

Some law firms are adamant that everyone work in the office full-time. However, this position has encountered resistance among some lawyers who have found they are more comfortable working at home and just as productive.

Before the pandemic, it was unthinkable that lawyers could work from home. However, after they were forced to adopt the technology to do so, they found it was possible successfully work remotely. Additionally, remote working allowed firms to save time and money. Which makes them ask: Why spend more money and return to the office?

This is a major shift from the pre-pandemic work culture in which almost everyone in the firm was expected to come into the office every day to meet clients in person. However, during the pandemic 90 percent of the lawyers reported that they spent more time on video or conference calls, according to an American Bar Association (ABA) survey, and 60 percent expected to have a flexible, hybrid working schedule.

Casey Ryan, Reed Smith’s global head of legal personnel, told Reuters, “We have adopted this flexible work policy with this new reality in mind and to capitalize on the best parts of what we have learned from remote working.”

He added, “We have learned that we can serve our clients at the highest level in a work environment that includes flexibility, and that this arrangement offers significant benefits to our people as well.”

Safety and Security

The safety and security of lawyers are a major concern for law firms. Some firms have conducted surveys to learn what percentages of their lawyers have been vaccinated in order to divide workstations accordingly.

In addition to physical safety, law firms are genuinely concerned with their lawyers’ mental health, comfort, safety, and personal preferences. Childcare options are not available like before. In California, for example, nearly 3,000 daycare providers have closed their businesses. Some daycare providers are open but they are finding it tough to operate under the new COVID regulations. Some are allowed only to take one-third of the kids. And although summer camps are back this year, many can’t operate at full capacity due to worker shortages.

Law firms need to understand the struggles of working parents. How will they manage work and take care of their kids? Additionally, how do these struggles differ between women and men? According to the ABA’s survey, 18 percent of women lawyers have dependent children aged 13 or younger, compared to only 5 percent of men.

Firms should anticipate that, for these parents, remote working is an effective way to help lawyers balance their work life and home life. The ABA found that lawyers with dependent children at home are more likely to continue working on a flexible work schedule. And about 20 percent of lawyers reported “that better resources for working parents would help them in the practice of law.”