By Anna Sanders for Law360.com
More BigLaw firms have implemented vaccine mandates and delayed their plans to return to the office as the legal industry responds to the latest wave of coronavirus infections across the U.S.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, McDermott Will & Emery LLP, Ropes & Gray LLP, Goodwin Procter LLP, Norton Rose Fulbright, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP and Crowell & Moring LLP have announced new vaccine requirements this week, according to internal memos and firm representatives. Akin Gump and McDermott even pushed back their office returns by a month, as did Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP.
The firms are just the latest to adjust their plans and policies in response to rising COVID-19 cases fueled by the more contagious delta variant.
Akin Gump, which planned to go back to the office Sept. 13, has delayed that return to Oct. 11, “assuming that date provides the requisite level of safety,” firm Chair Kim Koopersmith wrote in a memo to all U.S. offices on Monday.
“If there are remaining safety concerns as we approach that date, we will be prepared to adjust further,” she said in the memo, which was obtained by Law360 Pulse.
Akin Gump employees going into offices before the reopening must now be fully vaccinated for at least two weeks and the firm will limit visitor access to those who have been vaccinated. The firm is now evaluating whether to require vaccinations for entry into offices after the official reopening, according to Koopersmith. The firm will also require everyone wear masks in all office common spaces and elevators, including fully vaccinated employees. Masks are required in conference rooms, but those with offices won’t have to wear them when the door is closed.
McDermott postponed its planned mid-September reopening to Oct. 12, a target that “still may shift based on changing conditions,” Chair Ira Coleman wrote in a memo to the firm Monday afternoon. Offices are still technically open with normal services, and those who go in will still get lunch credits, he said in the memo obtained by Law360 Pulse.
And McDermott is requiring all U.S. employees be vaccinated “beginning immediately,” Coleman said. Unless they have approved medical or religious exemptions, employees must give photo proof of their vaccination cards to the firm or their ID keycard access for the office won’t work — a tactic Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP also plans to use to ensure compliance with new rules.
“The overwhelming body of scientific data shows that vaccines are safe and broadly effective in our battle against COVID, and we need everyone to step up and get vaccinated,” Coleman said. “Unfortunately, we are learning that due to the new COVID variants, vaccines alone are not enough.”
So McDermott will also require everyone to wear masks in open areas of the firm’s offices and plans to follow local guidance and mandates. Clients and guests must follow mask rules and prove they are vaccinated. For McDermott’s European offices, Coleman said rules will be based on local regulations.
“We had hoped we could avoid these tighter measures, particularly when we seemed to have turned a corner just a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, we need to face the circumstances as they are — and with a deep responsibility for our people, our families and our communities,” Coleman said. “I know we’re tired and many of us are frustrated and angry that we seem to have needlessly lost ground, just as the end seemed within reach. Given how crazy this pandemic has been, I’m sure there will be more surprises ahead, but we are the most resilient team, and I know that we can — and will — face anything that comes our way.”
Ropes & Gray will also bar unvaccinated employees from entering offices by disabling IDs, according to a report in Above the Law. Effective Aug. 9, only fully vaccinated individuals will be able to enter any of the firm’s U.S. offices or attend Ropes & Gray events and gatherings, no matter their location, firm Chair Julie Jones and managing partner David Djaha told staff in a memo obtained by Law360 Pulse.
The firm will also offer rapid-result antigen self-tests to those coming into the office, Jones and Djaha said. They recommended all staff carry face coverings in case they are needed, though changes to the firm’s masking guidelines will be set on an office-by-office basis depending on region, and they should be aware of their colleagues’ changing comfort levels.
“For those of you who have yet to receive a vaccine, we implore you to re-consider,” they said, urging staff to consult medical professionals, spiritual guides and others to “explore this very important decision in depth, with this virulent and aggressively contagious strain of COVID-19 in mind.”
“We are deeply committed to your safety and it’s not an understatement to say that your life, and the lives of others, may depend on your decision,” Jones and Djaha said.
Ropes & Gray initially planned to begin the next phase of their reopening on Sept. 13, when the firm would recommend attorneys come to the office two days a week, increasing to three days starting in November. Over the next two weeks, the firm plans to assess that timing to determine if a delay is warranted, according to the memo.
Goodwin will require vaccinations to go into firm offices once the Food and Drug Administration approves the COVID-19 vaccine for regular use, according to an internal memo sent Tuesday and obtained by Law360 Pulse. All partners, staff, on-site vendors, visitors and clients must be vaccinated for two weeks to be allowed in.
While Goodwin said medical and religious exemptions will granted, “non-vaccination status will not be considered a legitimate reason to support 100% remote work,” firm chief talent officer and Assistant General Counsel for Employment Heidi Goldstein Shepherd wrote in the memo. Those with exemptions will be required to do weekly testing before entering a firm office; Shepherd said more than 92% of U.S. staff have already been vaccinated.
Goodwin still expects employees to return to firm offices in September.
Norton Rose also plans for a full return to U.S. offices next month, but only those who have been vaccinated are allowed in, the firm said in a statement to Law360 Pulse Tuesday.
“With the delta variant causing a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated individuals, we are limiting access to our firm’s US offices to those who are fully vaccinated until further notice,” the firm wrote. “Our plans for a full return to our US offices next month remain in place, but we are continually monitoring the situation and evaluating this timeline.”
Cravath originally planned to return to New York and London offices after Labor Day, too, but is now aiming to be back Oct. 18, according to a memo from firm Presiding Partner Faiza Saeed. The New York office has been open to vaccinated individuals since May, and London will have similar policies, including updated protocols requiring masks in common areas.
“When we return, we will continue to limit office access and in-person attendance at events and client meetings to fully vaccinated individuals,” Saeed said.
And once Cravath returns, office attire will be business casual and most employees can work remotely for up to six business days a month. “We expect and trust that professionals of the caliber of our people can determine how that should translate into their weekly routine when we are back in the office,” Saeed wrote.
Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP has required everyone entering office space to be fully vaccinated, subject to medical or religious accommodations under applicable law, as of July 6, a spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.
Crowell & Moring said all lawyers and staff who enter firm offices in the U.S. must be fully vaccinated effective Sept. 7, according to a statement from the firm. Human resources will collect proof of vaccination and some employees will be allowed a medical or religious exemption.
Masks are now required for all employees in the firm’s San Franscico, Los Angeles, Orange County and Washington, D.C. offices.
“We have developed policies and protocols over the past 17 months with the singular goal of keeping our community safe,” the statement said.
BigLaw firms have been planning their returns in recent months as vaccines made larger gatherings and in-person work safer. But recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has been stymied by slowdowns in vaccination and a rise in cases associated with the delta variant, forcing firms to rethink their plans.
“The delta variant is changing our landscape and challenging our safety. We are learning how contagious it is amongst the unvaccinated and that those who are vaccinated can still transmit the virus to others, often without symptoms and unaware they are doing so,” Koopersmith wrote to Akin Gump employees Monday. “We are seeing a significant rise in cases across the country, especially in locations with low rates of vaccination.”
The updated firm policies come after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released new recommendations urging fully vaccinated Americans to wear masks indoors in areas of high COVID-19 transmission.
The growing list of law firms instituting requirements around vaccinations for their personnel include Cooley LLP, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Sanford Heisler LLP, Hogan Lovells, Dickinson Wright PLLC, Lowenstein Sandler LLP, Reed Smith LLP, Schiff Hardin LLP, Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP and Arent Fox LLP.