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Virginia law firms will return to a modified workplace

office-work-coronavirus-covid-pandemicThe COVID-19 pandemic altered the working lives of nearly every worker in the United States. The legal field was no exception.

Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons on March 16, 2020, declared a judicial emergency, effectively pausing nearly all matters in Virginia’s court system. Over a year later, the emergency declaration has been extended 20 times, and now runs through May 9.

Despite the emergency, the issues that create legal work never stopped. Law firms had to modify operations, including implementing public health guidance in the office and encouraging an increase in remote work.

Over 13 months into the pandemic, firms are beginning to adjust to what the new post-pandemic normal will be like. With roughly half of American adults at least partially vaccinated against the coronavirus, firms have begun transitioning to in-office work again.

“I am seeing the vast majority of legal employees, and essentially all of the lawyers, back in the office,” said Norfolk attorney John Bredehoft. Despite this development, Bredehoft said offices are continuing the expanded use of video calls and conferencing to ensure social distancing, even if attorneys are both in the building.

Dan Summerlin, president of Roanoke-based Woods Rogers PLC, said that his firm adopted a rotating remote schedule once the pandemic began and has practiced social distancing in the office throughout the pandemic.

“As Virginia gradually lifted restrictions on indoor capacity, we followed the guidance,” Summerlin said. While recognizing that his firm’s attorneys and paralegals will work remotely more often than they did prior to the pandemic, Summerlin encourages a safe return to the office.

“As a firm we continue to believe there is no substitute for in-person collaboration and will encourage everyone to spend significant time in the offices,” Summerlin said.

While many firms have completed or are in the process of returning to more frequent office work, some firms are still formulating a plan to return. Richmond attorney Amanda T. Belliveau said her firm, McCandlish Holton, has discussed returning to in-office operations in mid-May.

“What we’ve considered in coming up with that date is vaccine availability and groups it’s become available to, as well as being aware of generally who is getting vaccines when,” Belliveau said.

She added that the timing of the firm’s return to office work accounts for the two weeks after vaccination required to gain the full effectiveness of the shots. None of the lawyers interviewed for this story mentioned firms requiring mandatory vaccines to return to in-office employment.

Even with the return to the office, firms are not letting their guard down on safety measures. Belliveau said that her firm will still require masks, a trend seen across Virginia. Bredehoft added that his firm, Kaufman Canoles, still requires masks in public areas even by fully vaccinated persons. Virginia’s mask mandate remains in effect, which requires face coverings in “all employment settings where physical distancing cannot be maintained for more than 10 minutes.”

Equally prevalent in post-pandemic office layouts is social distancing. Bredehoft noted restrictions on public areas in the office, including restrooms and coffee supply stations. These limits extend to elevators, which employees ensure are not crowded.

“Most employees adhere to a two-person only rule for elevators, and wait for the next car if an elevator opens with two people already inside,” Bredehoft said.

As an aid for social distancing, Bredehoft added that some areas in the office are “taped-out or blocked-out,” similar to what can be seen in other public places. Signage has also been placed to encourage the use of hand sanitizer, which Bredehoft said has been provided in an “ubiquitous provision” by the firm, along with “copper-metal keychains with a padded tip” to push elevator buttons without actually touching them.

In addition to social distancing, increased sanitation is prevalent in the post-pandemic workplace. Belliveau said her firm will continue to heavily encourage regular hand washing, while Bredehoft noted enhanced sanitation, including “the highest-quality and highest-rated air filters” and cleaning people who sanitize high contact areas such as doorknobs.

The return to the office does not spell the end of remote work for many attorneys and paralegals. Summerlin said that Woods Rogers has implemented office-sharing arrangements for employees who will continue to work remotely in the future.

“There are great benefits to working remotely, including eliminating commute time and reducing the need for physical space. We believe remote work will become a permanent fixture in our profession,” said Woods Rogers chairman Victor Cardwell.  Summerlin added that the firm will continue to incorporate remote work into the firm’s operations.

“Remote work is here to stay, so it is unlikely we will return fully to pre-pandemic work styles,” Summerlin said, adding that Woods Rogers will encourage in-person interactions “when safe and appropriate to do so.”

Remote work has also aided in curbing anxieties about returning to the office. Bredehoft said he has not seen any anxiety about returning to work, but added that employees with “extremely rare and potentially fatal conditions” have continued to work from home for health reasons.  With offices also encouraging employees with symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home, all signs lead to remote work being a permanent addition to the operation of law firms across Virginia in one way or another.

While acknowledging that clients may expect virtual consultations in the future, Cardwell cautioned against the long term use of remote work if in-person operations can be safely conducted.

“Over time, too much reliance on remote working will negatively impact firm culture, including but not limited to succession planning, associate development and employee morale,” Cardwell said.

With safety measures and restrictions still in place, coupled with the likely permanent addition of remote work, those looking for firms to return 100% to prepandemic operations are likely to be disappointed.

“The best teamwork occurs when attorneys actively connect and we recognize these active connections in the future may be in-person, by phone or virtual,” Summerlin said.

Amongst all the differences in the return to the office, Bredehoft mentioned one noteworthy change: fewer people stop by the candy dispenser in his office, filled with “cool and luscious chocolates.”

“Since social distancing, far fewer people stop by my office just to get candy – although some folks still do,” Bredehoft said. “I am waiting for the end of social distancing so I no longer have to fear that the candy will end up in my stomach.”