Analysis

Boston Attys Not Racing Back To Office As Virus Fears Linger

By Chris Villani
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Law360 (June 12, 2020, 6:30 PM EDT) -- Picture a lawyer putting on her mask and stepping outside of her office. She walks left down a hallway, past a legal assistant working behind plexiglass and the spot where the once frequently touched coffee machine used to be.

If she misses the room she meant to enter, she has to keep walking and taking right turns until she gets back to where she started, because two-way traffic is not allowed in the hallways.

And — perhaps the most noticeable difference — most of her colleagues that once filled a space in Boston's Seaport or Financial District or Back Bay aren't there anymore because they realized they can be just as productive working from home.

These are just a few examples of the changes attorneys expect to see as law firms slowly reopen, along with the rest of the Massachusetts economy, following closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even with capacities strictly limited, Bay State lawyers say most of their colleagues are in no rush to get back to the office, leaving firms looking for ways to keep their employees close while physical distancing continues for months to come.

"It's a relatively small number of people who feel they need to be back in," said Josh Davis, an employment lawyer and litigator with Goulston & Storrs PC who has been helping to spearhead the firm's plans for returning to its home near Boston Harbor.

"My sense is everyone, and I mean everyone, would be thrilled to go back in if going back in meant living in the kind of community we have lived and worked in forever," Davis said. "But it doesn't. It means masks and six feet apart and closed conference rooms and closed cafeterias. It will be a completely different-seeming space."

Under Massachusetts' plan for reopening, offices were allowed to be at up to 25% capacity in Phase 1, which began in late May for most of the state and June 1 in Boston. The state is now in Phase 2 of the four-phase plan, but law firms are using their own time table when it comes to getting people back into the office.

As of Thursday, the COVID-19 death total in Massachusetts stood at 7,492. State officials have reported positive trends across several key metrics, including hospitalizations and testing rate, as the state gradually opens back up.

Mark Batten of Proskauer Rose LLP said he told some of his partners on a recent Zoom call that he was eager to get back to the firm's home near Boston's Post Office Square. His enthusiasm was not shared by anyone else on the call.

"People are content with the more flexible hours and the lack of a commute has been a big plus, as well as the ability to have more flexibility about the day," Batten said.

Nixon Peabody LLP, which has an office in Government Center, just steps from the Old State House and the site of the Boston Massacre, was one of the first law firms to close its U.S. offices in March, said CEO and Managing Partner Andrew Glincher.

"I can assure you we will not be one of the first to go back," he said. "When we eventually open our offices, we will do so in phases and will provide plenty of notice to our colleagues."

Casner & Edwards LLP calls Boston's Seaport District home, a neighborhood replete with swanky bars and restaurants, as well as the federal courthouse. After 10 weeks of strict work-from-home protocol, managing partner John Morrier said the firm relaxed its rules on going to the office June 1.

In order for an attorney or other employee to come in, he or she needs to request permission and sign up for a slot to ensure the office stays at no more than 25% capacity. So far, Morrier said they have not hit that number.

Secretaries and legal assistants are among those who have gone back to the office, Morrier said, to deal with a backlog of physical papers and other matters that must be handled in person.

"We have scheduled them based on who sits where so that people are dispersed, and we installed additional physical barriers in the office," he said. "The secretary stations have plexiglass barriers and our reception desk, which remains closed, has plexiglass barriers as well."

Massachusetts has been at the forefront of the movement to implement contact tracing in an effort to tamp down any virus hotspots that may emerge as overall numbers decline. Morrier said Casner & Edwards has its own contact tracing program for the few visitors who may come in for a deposition or another matter.

Any visitor to the firm, in addition to needing permission to come into the office, must answer questions about their health status and exposure, with all of the information kept on file, Morrier said.

The layout for offices may change as a result of the pandemic. Some firms could even consider reducing the space they rent, especially in a pricey city like Boston, if more attorneys find they can work more often from home.

"I think law firms for sure and other businesses are very likely to revisit their real estate in the wake of this," Proskauer's Batten said. "I think there was already talk in the industry about downsizing and there has been a big move towards more open floor plans using space more efficiently … and the success people are seeing with remote work can only fuel that fire."

The very concept of what constitutes a work week could change, Goulston & Storrs' Davis said.

"Every law firm has a different cultural expectation around presence in the office, and for many it's a core value, but there always have been outliers," he said. "People who will work from home and the majority of folks I have worked for have scoffed at them."

Davis continued, "I think that's gone forever and I suspect you will see many more lawyers, partners and associates who think a work week is not Monday through Friday at work, but some smattering of days and times."

Attorneys say the return to work will include all of what has become commonplace during the crisis. Masks will be worn, surfaces will be constantly disinfected and human contact will be limited to only what is necessary. The office drop-by may become a thing of the past, replaced by virtual social gatherings like the cocktail hour Batten and his colleagues in the labor group enjoy via Zoom every Thursday after work.

"We talk a little bit about work and just talk about what's going on in people's lives and how they are holding up," he said. "One of the things I miss most about the office is being able to walk in and out of each other's offices and have that human contact." 

At Nixon Peabody, Glincher said the firm will "meet or exceed" any state and federal guidelines that are put in place. Establishing rules to ensure social distancing and minimize risk of exposure may be the easy part. Making sure people follow them, especially if the number of COVID-19 cases dwindles, is another challenge.

"You're bringing lawyers back to a place that is essentially home for them and you say, 'Now wear face coverings when you're out of the office, don't get close to each other.' You tell me, how long will that hold in a universe where people are friends and the culture is trust?" Davis said.

"It's going to take a lot of discipline for us and other law firms and other businesses to figure out how to continue to behave in accordance with the guidelines the CDC is offering once people begin to feel safe again," Davis added. "Because that feeling is going to overwhelm discipline."

--Editing by Kelly Duncan.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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