So here we are, two years after most of the world started taking the novel coronavirus, as it was then called, seriously. It would take another month before major cities like New York would recognize that it wouldn’t go away and shut down virtually nothing. Now two cities that have been hit hard by the virus – New York and London – are lifting mask mandates and other restrictions and many law firms are eager to put the past two years behind them.
Kirkland & Ellis, the world’s largest law firm by revenue, said last week that from March 29, all lawyers and staff, firm-wide, will be Must be in the office three days a week. Other firms also encourage lawyers to come into the office at least a few days a week, although their guidelines are more region-specific. At Ropes & Gray, where US lawyers are now asked to work in the office one to two days a week, the firm recommends that from March 1 they come at least three days. Weil Gotshal also said he will fully reopen his US offices on February 28.
But while Americans and Brits seem to be fed up with COVID-19 – and law firms are fed up with postponing the reopening of their offices and tiptoeing around associates who enjoy working at home – government policies and attitudes towards the virus in other parts of the world, and the policies and attitudes of law firms in various countries, are very different.
In Canada and New Zealand, where strict COVID rules have sparked widespread protests, authorities continue to impose COVID mandates and restrictions. And in Australia, where residents of Sydney and Melbourne have endured some of the longest lockdowns in the past two years, a rapid rise in omicron cases has prompted many law firms across the country are pushing back on plans to bring more staff back to the office, writes Australian correspondent Christopher Niesche. At major Australian firm Gilbert + Tobin, for example, offices in Sydney and Melbourne are only around 10% occupied after the company asked staff to work from home where possible to slow the spread of the virus. virus.
Then there’s much of Southeast Asia, where COVID restrictions are still tight. And of course, Hong Kong and China still adhere to a zero-COVID policy. In fact, Hong Kong, also a global financial and legal hub, last week imposed the strictest social distancing rules yet, with the city reporting another record spike in infections. public Health experts from the University of Hong Kong say a return to the zero-Covid status quo, which Hong Kong still insists on, would only be possible if lockdown-like measures were imposed on the entire city for two to three months.
Speaking of Asia, we’ve seen quite a bit of news from the region over the past week.
The Beijing Winter Olympics took center stage, of course, not only in the sports world, but also in the legal sphere. The International Olympic Committee has brought a doping case involving 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine, before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). As Jack Womack writes, the Court, which opened two temporary offices in China in January, is composed of eminent arbitrators from all over the world, including one who is a French national named Jingzhou Tao – Dechert’s former managing partner in Beijing. The decision on whether Valieva will be able to compete on Tuesday in youhe women’s singles short skating program has not been announced at the time of this writing, but is expected Monday afternoon Beijing time.
Hong Kong also made headlines last week because US attorney Samuel Bickett has been sent back to prison serve a four-month sentence. In 2019, Bickett had a fight with an undercover police officer after witnessing the officer beat up a teenage boy. Bickett, who says the officer denied being a cop, appealed the decision, but last week Hong Kong’s High Court dismissed the appeal, demanding Bickett be returned to jail. Bickett, meanwhile, announced that he intended to appeal the latest ruling in an effort to have the verdict overturned.
And for readers interested in the Big Four in Asia or elsewhere, I highly recommend reading Jessica Seah’s in-depth look at the performance of the legal departments of major accounting firms in Asia. Jess writes that since the Big Four began making a big inroad in the region about five years ago, their performance in the legal field has been rather disappointing – a big relief for traditional global law firms. But it may be premature for them to let their guard down, as accounting giants learn and have sharpened their focus, Jess writes. The lessons of history are not just for Asia. Anyone who watches the Big Four will benefit from this. You can read Jess’ piece here.
I also strongly urge you to read last week Information session for lawyers in Asia, in which Jess talks about the tens of thousands of people who left Hong Kong last year, including lawyers. Some leave because of politics; others are just fed up with Hong Kong’s draconian “zero-COVID” policy, which has separated families and severely restricted travel. Whatever the reasons, the exodus of Hong Kongers and expats is having a huge impact on Hong Kong’s legal industry at a time when some argue the city has already lost its luster as a financial and legal hub. Read more here.
Last week we were also reminded of how COVID-19 has impacted different places around the world differently with a story from Amy Guthrie, who has written about the impact the virus has had on restructuring work in Latin America. While Big Law’s U.S. restructuring and bankruptcy practices have suffered from a lack of work, U.S.-based firms are handling a large volume of restructuring work outside of Latin America, where firms have received little government support during the pandemic.
Finally, it almost seems like we’ve written story after story about the legal industry’s global wage war, but it’s clear that these stories are justified because the war is still making waves. As I wrote in The Global Advocate two weeks ago, some think it’s over, that the constant pairing and one-upmanship of law firms has reached a turning point. Others say it is not. The muted response to Milbank’s January pay rise for associates may not have sparked an immediate wave of pay increases, but some observers say they shouldn’t be counted. Christine Simmons writes that the dust has not yet settled – that some companies are just waiting to see what their competitors are doing.
But in the UK, at least, law firm partners think newly graduated lawyers earn too much. According to a survey by Law.com International, 95% of leading UK lawyers surveyed believe young lawyers’ salaries are too high, and more than half think it’s time to put caps on those salaries, writes Rose Walker .
Additionally, two-thirds of respondents said they expected the wage bubble to burst within two years, noting that increases are unsustainable because they defy the laws of commerce and economics. At this rate, the costs of running law firms will quickly outpace any revenue growth, they said. They may not have said it so openly a few months ago, but it’s worth noting that in November, after raising the salaries of his firm’s partners, Adrian Tembel, managing partner at the law firm Australian Thomson Geer, warned that this kind of inflated cost base becomes very dependent on higher revenues. “Any sudden drop in income can have a major negative cultural impact and that’s where people can get hurt,” he said.
And let’s not forget the customer. How long will law firms be able to pass on increased costs to their clients? Varsha Patel writes that GCs are increasingly reluctant to pay their external lawyers higher fees for junior lawyers. These customers have already seen their billing rates increase significantly over the past two years, and they are now very worried about high inflation, Andrew Maloney wrote last month. One analyst said it would be “foolish” for any law firm executive to ignore the path of inflation.
Perhaps that’s why we haven’t seen a wave of law firms raising salaries. After all, a lot can be said about the leaders of law firms. But most are far from stupid.