Telework Still Reigns As NYC Firms Cleared To Reopen Offices

By Anne Cullen
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Law360 (June 22, 2020, 9:09 PM EDT) -- New York City kicked off the second phase of its reopening plan Monday, freeing many companies to bring employees back into the office, but some law firms say ongoing coronavirus concerns are holding them back.

"We're in no rush to reopen in New York," said Richard Hans, the head of DLA Piper's Manhattan office. Citing a recent spike in coronavirus cases across the country, as well the risks of hopping on a crowded subway, Hans told Law360 that the office is sticking with its mandatory telework policy until at least July 10.

"There are a number of individuals who are uncomfortable taking mass transit," Hans said. "So even were we to address all of the safety concerns within the office, which we are doing, they are hesitant to commute back into or across the city on trains or buses."

DLA Piper's Manhattan office is its largest in the country, with roughly 220 attorneys and 120 staffers.

The firm has already begun to reopen a handful of U.S. offices — in Atlanta; Wilmington, Delaware; Houston; Dallas; and Raleigh, North Carolina — but Hans said it's not yet ready to reopen in Manhattan, which became the national epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic after the disease reached the U.S. in January.

The city still tops the charts, reporting nearly 210,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus since the first one was reported in March, and more than 22,000 coronavirus-related deaths.

When DLA Piper leaders eventually roll back the Manhattan office's mandatory telework policy, Hans said they're going to ease into it. "Even when we do reopen, it will be purely on a voluntary basis," he said, adding that this initial reopening strategy will probably run through the summer.

While the head of the New York State Bar Association told Law360 last week that many attorneys are "chomping at the bit" to get back, several other major firms with Manhattan offices said they're taking similar, slow approaches with their New York City personnel.

The current firmwide remote-work policy at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, which has a few dozen attorneys based in New York, will stay in place "for the foreseeable future," Chief Operating Officer Jane Koehl said.

"We do not have a date certain at this point when we may open any office for the return of our colleagues," Koehl said in a statement.

Koehl said the firm's executives "continue to closely monitor COVID-19 safety orders across each of our geographic locations, including in Manhattan and Albany," and when they decide to get the New York City office back up and running, it will be a soft launch.

"Colleagues will be invited to return in phases, and the firm will exercise a great deal of flexibility to support colleagues who prefer or need to work remotely," she said.

Mayer Brown LLP is on the same page, with its Manhattan office still largely closed except for a skeleton staff. The firm's leaders plan to implement a gradual reopening strategy down the line.

"We are going to put the safety and health of our people above all else," said New York managing partner Matthew Ingber. "We're going to be very measured in our approach. We're going to make this voluntary."

The firm's New York City office is made up of more than 250 lawyers and upward of 100 staffers.

Mayer Brown has reopened some of its overseas offices — in Asia as well as in Paris, the German cities of Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, and in Brussels — but none yet in the U.S. While Ingber could offer no specific timetable, he said the eventual reopenings will be staggered, with a small percentage of employees coming in at first.

"We're going to monitor things on the ground and take things day by day," Ingber said.

McDermott Will & Emery LLP is planning to start reopening offices nationwide after the Fourth of July, according to Todd Finger and Jeffrey B. Steiner, co-managing partners of the firm's Manhattan office.

"We have been readying our U.S. offices for reopening following the July 4th holiday as part of a comprehensive, phased approach that is tailored to the specific needs of each location and our people; this includes our New York City office," the two said in an email to Law360.

They also said safety and adapting to employee needs are top priorities. 

"We are committed to being as flexible as possible and presence in the office will remain voluntary for all personnel who are able to perform their roles remotely once physical offices reopen," they said.

McDermott's New York City office is its third-largest, with about 180 lawyers and 125 staff members.

Not all attorneys are planning to stay home, though. New York State Bar Association Treasurer Domenick Napoletano said he and many lawyers he's spoken to are heading into the office now that the restrictions have been relaxed.

Napoletano, a solo practitioner in Brooklyn with one assistant on the payroll, told Law360 he plans to open up shop next week, and he said attorneys in comparable situations are taking similar steps.

Solo practitioners and attorneys at small firms can more easily reopen because they have fewer employees, while midsize and large firms may need to move a bit more slowly, Napoletano said. Many are taking a staggered approach, where only some employees come in at a time, he said. 

"While a full complement of staff and attorneys are not coming in all at the same time, I think people are taking advantage of the opening," Napoletano added.

Although he and his assistant may wind up in the office earlier than some others, Napoletano said it will be "a slow opening," and he emphasized the importance of following safety precautions: wearing a mask, washing hands and maintaining a safe distance from others. 

--Additional reporting by Craig Clough and Mike LaSusa. Editing by Aaron Pelc and Jill Coffey.

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

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