There’s no shortage of compliance hurdles and operational challenges for law firms to leap when formulating plans for bringing lawyers and staff back to the office following prolonged periods of absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local health and safety mandates are first and foremost, of course. But following quickly behind are the novel challenges of dealing fairly with a workforce that has come to expect remote and flex-time work, providing meaningful promotion and leadership opportunities for remote workers, preserving office culture and engagement within a newly distributed workforce, and making sure the firm is technologically equipped to thrive in this new environment.
The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates recently approved two resolutions addressing law firm “return to the workplace” policies. Although these resolutions lack prescriptive weight, they ensure that the ABA and state bar associations will have both leadership and educational roles in the continued evolution of the legal profession in a post-pandemic world.
“Return to Work” Plans Should Not Marginalize Women, Caregivers, Minorities
Resolution 602 encourages law firms and bar associations to “address the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact within the legal profession on people of color, women, individuals with disabilities, individuals who identify as LGBTQ+, caregivers, and seniors” when formulating “return to the workplace” policies. The resolution was sponsored by the ABA Coordinating Committee on Practice Forward, supported in part by a committee survey (PDF) indicating that the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic are felt more acutely by women and lawyers of color, among other minority groups within the legal profession.
The report accompanying Resolution 602 urged law firm managers to retain remote work opportunities for lawyers with caregiving responsibilities (predominantly women, according to survey data) and to increase opportunities for part-time and flex-time work. Remote and part-time or flex-time lawyers should also be given meaningful opportunities for promotion, management, and leadership roles, the report said.
The report also touched on COVID-19 vaccines, recommending that law firms adopt return to work policies that permit “lawyers and staff who do not have access to the vaccine to return to the office if they otherwise abide by health and safety protocols.”
ABA: Bar Associations Should Take Leadership Role
Resolution 603 (PDF) calls on all bar associations to take a leadership role in promoting the safe return of lawyers and staff to physical offices. The report accompanying the resolution notes that, in addition to the workplace fairness considerations underlying Resolution 602, bar associations should lead the development of law firm “return to the workplace” plans that are mindful of employee legal protections, health and safety considerations, “office culture” issues, as well as Zoom fatigue and other side effects of remote work.
The House of Delegates meets twice yearly to vote on resolutions that establish the official policy of the ABA on numerous legal and social issues. Approved resolutions guide the work of ABA member groups, establish institutional spending priorities, and provide policy direction to ABA government relations personnel.
Bar Groups Offering “Return to Work” Programs
Several bar associations have already recognized the need to support members as they return to offices and the prospect of in-person meetings with co-workers, clients, and court personnel.
- The California Bar Association is offering continuing legal education credit for lawyers who attend Managing Re-Entry: Return to the Office With Emotional Wellness, a course that promises to give attendees the self-management tools to “navigate in-person norms that now feel foreign and challenging.”
- The American Bar Association Coordinating Group on Practice Forward produced a CLE-eligible webinar entitled Returning to HQ: How to Get Back to Work After Pandemic Closures.
- The New York State Bar Association is offering Solos and Small firm Lawyers Conference Part Two: Practicing in the New World and 21st Century Diversity & Inclusion: Making Modern Workplaces.
- The Washington State Bar Association published Reopening Safely: A Guide for Washington State Law Offices (PDF). The state bar also offers Getting Back to the Courtroom: Litigation Strategies for the Effective Resolution of Cases Before and During Trial, a program addressing techniques for working through the backlog of civil suits due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The State Bar of Georgia publishes a webpage containing back-to-work plans and other resources for Georgia lawyers.
This list is not exhaustive. Chances are there are similar programs in every jurisdiction, with more coming soon.