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Law firm leaders debate when and how to return to the office

August 2, 2021

On July 29, President Joe Biden announced a new government effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic: All civilian federal employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular coronavirus testing before returning to the office.

Program participants (clockwise from top left) Joey Jackson, David Lat, Patricia Brown Holmes and J.Y. Miller

Program participants (clockwise from top left) Joey Jackson, David Lat, Patricia Brown Holmes and J.Y. Miller

That same day, four experts gathered at an ABA program to debate whether and how lawyers and legal staff should return to the office.  

Moderated by New York City lawyer and CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson, the program, titled “Returning to the Office … Or Not,” found the experts grappling with how to protect employees in the office and whether remote work will be essential after the pandemic.

J.Y. Miller manages a team of 76 lawyers and 32 support staffers who work permanently from home for the law firm Husch Blackwell. Miller is based in St. Louis but members of the team, called The Link, work from 28 cities across the country.

“I think, without a doubt, remote work is here to stay,” Miller said. “When you look at our future and you look at the lessons learned from the past 15 months, I don’t see how you come to any conclusion other than remote work needs to be part of that solution.”

Patricia Brown Holmes, managing partner of the law firm Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila in Chicago, agreed, and said she was reluctant to require vaccines. “If the federal government is going to mandate vaccines, I’m fine with that,” Holmes said. “I won’t mandate vaccines for my people. I will mandate that they take care of themselves and keep themselves healthy as they try to do their jobs.”

David Lat, founder of the Above the Law legal website, contracted a severe case of COVID-19 early in the pandemic. He said he prefers to take “more rather than fewer measures to combat the spread of the virus” while people are at the office. He noted that many large law firms now require either vaccinations, with some exemptions, or testing employees before they come to office.

“That strikes me as a very reasonable middle ground,” Lat said. “They’re not necessarily forcing it or requiring it per se, but it certainly makes your life easier if you just get vaccinated as opposed to having to submit to the swab up your nose every time you want to go to the office.”

In any event, Holmes said, if law firms continue to allow lawyers and employees to work from home, they must “set some personal borders” to keep employees’ work and home lives separate. During the pandemic, she said, there have been no such borders.

“Folks have come to expect us to be available 24-7, almost, because they can reach you whenever they want to,” Holmes said. “I think, as a society, if we are going to embrace remote work, we need to embrace some hours around that.”

In closing remarks, ABA President Patricia Lee Refo said, “This is a difficult time for the legal profession and the country. As the pandemic seems to be waning, we all desperately want to return to normal. But what is normal now? We still don’t know for sure, but the ABA is ready to provide help.”

The program was hosted by the ABA Media Relations and Strategic Communications Division

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