The legal profession has learned to go virtual over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As many of us know from firsthand experience, starting in March of 2020, law firms shuttered offices and promoted work-from-home policies in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many shops made the transition to virtual work with ease, and numerous law firms are just as — if not more — productive with virtual work than when offices were physically open. Numerous law firms attempted to open offices again this fall when COVID-19 cases were lower, as firms were itching to get back to normal as much as possible. Now that the omicron wave is causing COVID-19 cases to skyrocket to new heights, law firms should shutter offices again to protect employees from getting sick or worse.
Although the same reasoning for why offices were closed toward the beginning of the pandemic seems to abound today with the omicron wave, many law firms are refusing to close their offices. Many people are telling me that law firm managers are hesitant to shutter offices and take a step backward in their efforts to reverse pandemic measures and return to normal as much as possible. On one level, we can understand why law firm managers are reluctant to shutter offices again. Law firms are likely paying high rates for office space that has been lying vacant for much of the recent past due to COVID-19. Managers may want to bring people back to the office as soon as possible so that this expense does not seem like a sunk cost.
In addition, there are some benefits to bringing people back to an office. It is difficult for law firms to forge an office identity, and this usually requires people to work together in a shared space to create a connection to a firm. The culture of an office can be important to collaboration between employees of a shop and can ensure that employees are more loyal to a firm. Moreover, some extroverted people might thrive on being around coworkers, and this can make them more productive in an office than if they work from home.
However, now is not the time to put the health and safety of law firm employees at risk in favor of some of the benefits of keeping an office open. I am not a physician or public health expert, but it is clear that the omicron wave is a new and somewhat scary stage of this pandemic. Case counts have skyrocketed to heights that have not previously been seen during the pandemic. From my own perspective, living and working in the New York City area, the impact of the omicron wave can be felt every day.
It seems like everyone knows someone who has recently been infected with COVID-19, and I personally know relatives, colleagues, adversaries, friends, and others who have. Keeping offices open, and possibly requiring employees to travel on public transportation to get to and from such offices, could dramatically increase the chance employees will get infected with COVID-19. This militates in favor of keeping offices closed until COVID-19 cases decrease, hopefully in a few months or so.
Some law firm managers may point to vaccine requirements in order to convey that a return to the office is safe, but this is not enough. Many of us know people who have suffered breakthrough infections during the recent omicron wave even though they are vaccinated. To be clear, I am pro vaccines and am boosted myself, but research indicates that vaccines may not be as effective at preventing omicron infections than with previous variants of COVID-19. Law firm managers should not rely on vaccine mandates to prevent them from taking the important step of closing offices to minimize the chance that employees will be sick from COVID-19.
In addition, closing offices should not impose an undue hardship on law firms. Shops needed to contend with virtual work for nearly two years now, and many firms have responded admirably to the work-from-home landscape. Indeed, numerous shops have relied on virtual environments to keep people connected form home and provided employees the equipment they need to be productive as they work from home. If a law firm is having issues being productive because of virtual work, this is more a failure of firm leadership than of employees, and workers should not suffer from the inability of managers to respond to the public health emergency. No law firm can reasonably argue that they are unprepared to close offices due to omicron when they have had years to deal with issues caused by COVID-19.
All told, law firms should shutter offices for at least the next few months until the omicron wave passes and shops can assess whether they can safely return to offices. Vaccine mandates and other measures alone cannot guarantee safety during the omicron wave. Law firm employees already know how to be productive from their virtual work over the past few years and there is no good reason why law firm offices should remain open during the omicron wave.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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