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‘If Zoom is doing it, everybody probably needs to be’: Growing number of US law firms mandate four-days-in-office week

Lawyers adhering to a minimum of four days in the  office a week policy  is gaining traction among US firms, with Vinson & Elkins now joining the trend, while UK firms appear less inclined to follow suit just yet.

Vinson & Elkins announced on 9 August that it will adopt a four-day in-office schedule from 11 September, allowing the choice of remote work on either Monday or Friday, marking a change from their previous three-day hybrid policy introduced in March last year.

According to an internal memo viewed by Legal Business, the firm said it aimed to strike a balance between in-person interaction and remote work post-pandemic. However, with an increasing number of firms shifting towards a four-day model, Vinson & Elkins is concerned that remote work may hinder connectivity, yet the firm continues to endorse remote work when the need arises.

One partner at a US firm notes: ‘Zoom recently announced they’re going to bring back their people back to the office, so if Zoom is doing it,  everybody probably needs to be if their business model depends on interaction.’

In a similar vein, Ropes & Gray joined the trend a week ago, while Weil announced its four-day office policy in July, following Davis Polk’s announcement a month earlier.

Ropes & Gray will require its lawyers to come into the office from Monday to Thursday with Friday being an optional remote working day, beginning on 6 November.

‘We are making this change because success in this highly competitive marketplace requires us to invest in what makes Ropes & Gray extraordinary—our culture, teamwork in furtherance of excellence for clients and our steadfast commitment to developing the best lawyers in the world,’ according to a firmwide memo sent by chair Julie Jones and managing partner David Djaha.

‘These strengths, which define and differentiate us, can only be realised to their fullest extent through in-person collaboration, learning and mentoring. Simply put, we need more people together, more often, more consistently.’

Mirroring this approach, Weil said it will require all US lawyers to come into the office four days a week, starting on 5 September, and Davis Polk will enforce a mandatory Monday to Thursday schedule for US lawyers following US Labor Day in September.

Skadden was one of the first adopters, announcing its four-days in the office model back in May, which will also take effect following US Labor Day. Skadden lawyers are expected to be in the office from Monday to Thursday, indicating a shift from their previous policy of three days of in-office attendance from Tuesday to Thursday.

Other US firms have been less clear about potential changes down the line. Legal Business understands that Kirkland & Ellis currently adopts a three-day office attendance policy, requiring lawyers in the office from Tuesday through Thursday, however the firm declined to comment on the matter.

Aymen Mahmoud, partner and co-head of finance, restructuring and special situations at McDermott Will & Emery, said: ‘Firms are seeking to encourage their people to be in the office for a host of reasons, including providing the best possible training opportunities for associates, maximising best practices for firm culture and indeed increasing the likelihood that opportunistic business openings can be quickly addressed among partners.’

But interestingly, the Magic Circle firms are taking a different route. Freshfields maintains its policy of lawyers spending three days in the office a week, while Slaughter and May and Allen & Overy grant the flexibility of remote work up to 40% of the time. Similarly, Clifford Chance and Linklaters maintain a hybrid-working approach, requiring lawyers to be in the office at least 50% of the time.

Another partner at a US firm noted: ‘Magic Circle firms have always been more formal in terms of expectations from their associates. Probably what is going on is that UK firms say you need to be in three days a week, but everyone is in much more than that anyway.’

‘It’s just generally dictated by the expectations that the firm has set, the feedback of their people and the type of business it is. Certain businesses lend themselves to more remote working than others. Each business is weighing up the question: “How does attendance at the office assist our business relative to our value set, employees and the client work we have or aspire to have?”,’ said an executive at a UK firm.

Outside of the Magic Circle, other UK firms seem to be standing by a three-day week policy too. Taylor Wessing announced its hybrid remote-working policy in 2020. ‘We have reiterated that approach and it hasn’t been altered,’ says managing partner Shane Gleghorn. Using the word mandate is adopting a slightly declarative tone that doesn’t really match reality because most firms have been expecting attendance at their offices for some time. And to a large degree, they’re reinforcing the message that has pertained for a considerable period of time.’

Other firms, such as LB100 firm Fladgate, maintain a three-day-a-week office policy, albeit with more flexibility.

Managing partner Grant Gordon said: ‘It’s a recommendation though, we’re not hard and fast on it. But we’d like to see our partners and our associates and our other support staff teams in for three days. If someone comes in two days a week, but next week comes in four days, no one going is going to jump up and down and say, “are we taking a register?”. We’re happy with that for the time being.

‘I don’t know what will happen going forward, but we’re showing good growth and good productivity three days a week. If our people are happy and they’re finding ways to achieve a work-life balance and if this provides the architecture for both happier lawyers, and for more fulfilled lawyers because they can attend to everything they need to, then that’s what we’re doing.’

Over the coming months, it will be interesting to see which other firms jump on the bandwagon, and whether UK-centric firms adopt a stricter stance. Nevertheless, one executive at a UK firm said that the distinction between these firms may not be as clear cut. ‘The difficulty is that there’s so many differences between approaches which are driven by the type of culture and business that that you are, so I’m not sure it divides neatly between the US and UK, international or European firms.’