As Omicron fades, Kirkland office return plan could help set legal industry trend

Signage is seen outside of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Washington, D.C., U.S., August 30, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Employees at Kirkland & Ellis are expected on-site three days a week by late March
  • Industry experts predict law firm return plans will accelerate as Omicron wanes

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Reuters – The same week that California, New York, New Jersey and other states announced the lifting of indoor mask mandates, Kirkland & Ellis told employees Tuesday that they will be expected to work from the office three days a week beginning late March.

The move by one of the world’s largest and most profitable law firms could help spur a wider return-to-office push in the coming weeks, according to legal industry experts. And the rollback of U.S. mask mandates gives firms political cover to bring employees back onsite as Omicron cases decline, they said.

“Certainly, managing partners and firm leaders are pretty anxious to get back,” said Lisa Smith, a law firm consultant with Fairfax Associates. “That’s not true up and down the line, but there is a desire to get on with it and establish what the new norms are going to be.”

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Some firms have been back in the office for most of the pandemic, while many others have repeatedly delayed their office return plans due to changing COVID-19 conditions. A few unveiled their post-Omicron surge plans ahead of Kirkland. Ropes & Gray, for example, told U.S.-based lawyers in late January that they are encouraged to work from the office once or twice a week starting Feb. 7, then at least three days a week starting March 1.

Kirkland is taking a slightly different tack, telling employees in a Feb. 7 memo first reported by Above the Law that they are expected to work from the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays beginning March 29. The firm on Wednesday declined to comment.

Mandating specific days in the office is a way for firms to foster teamwork and ensure employee face time, said Vertex Advisors Group founder Robert Kamins, who advises law firms on management issues.

But requiring three set days a week on-site could be a liability in the current legal talent war, prompting attorneys to depart for firms with more flexible policies, Kamins added. Remote work policies are one area where law firms can differentiate themselves from competitors, he said. Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, for example, told lawyers in December that they can work from anywhere, indefinitely.

Chicago-founded Kirkland, with more than 2,700 lawyers, has topped industry revenue rankings for the last four years. The firm is known for its strong mergers and acquisitions and transactional practices—areas that have seen particularly strong demand in an ongoing M&A boom.

“There are different expectations across firms, but I’m guessing the Kirkland model, with some variation, will become the norm,” Smith said.

Read more:

New Jersey, California among states moving to ease mask mandates as Omicron ebbs

Omicron still vexes large law firms as more office returns delayed

Quinn Emanuel tells U.S. lawyers they can work from anywhere, forever

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