Legal Law

Biglaw Vacation Celebration Turns Into COVID Outbreak – Above the Regulation

Navigating this winter may present the biggest challenge firms have faced since the start of the pandemic. Early on, firms needed to pull the plug on in-person office work and develop a system to keep revenue churning during a lockdown. But now, firms have to make the call on when to return to the office, balancing the reality of fully vaccinated attorneys and staff with another COVID surge and a brand new, arguably more virulent variant.

Some firms have gone back in, others have pushed it off into the new year. But regardless of office policy, firms must also grapple with the holiday party conundrum. In a bid to build a winning culture, could firms finally bring everyone under one roof to meet and mingle? Or would it be another sad Zoom party?

There’s not a great answer either way. We even asked folks in a survey to let us know their thoughts about parties.

Unfortunately, a holiday get together for Latham’s New York Corporate Department has ended in a bit of an outbreak. The name of the HR department contact is redacted.

That’s not great. Tipsters say upwards of 10 associates have tested positive since the party (which is a lot for a population that’s 100 percent vaccinated by rule… ominously Omicron-ic). And yet, it’s hard to blame the firm for wanting a little bit of normal.

The firm wasn’t trying to “square peg round hole” its way back to normal like Tammy in Bumblyville refusing to wear a mask at the Trader Joe’s. Latham got on board with a vaccine mandate for the express purpose of getting the firm back to normal safely, issuing the requirement even though almost everyone in the firm had voluntarily done the right thing. And if you have to take the drawbacks of trudging to the office occasionally, you should enjoy the advantage of being able to grab a drink with a colleague.

But, as many of us are learning, the vaccine doesn’t completely end the risk of contracting the virus. My vaccine held up after standing next to another breakthrough infection without a mask for hours in Las Vegas, but ultimately fell as I went about my daily life. The vaccine deserves all the credit for turning my bout into little more than a minor 24-hour cough, though.

So how does a firm negotiate the continued risk of contracting the virus with the benefits of vaccination in guarding against severe cases? Public health officials suggest that the virus may be with us forever at this point, and we may have to start approaching it as something “comparable to the flu” like many people falsely believed it was from the start.

While it sucks for Latham to be the first of what will inevitably be many firms to get stung by this outcome, the firm demonstrates the proper response here. Stay home and get tested if you think you’ve been exposed — even if you’re vaccinated.

Because the problem here isn’t the existence of a holiday party in a vaccinated world, it’s how the party is presented to employees. One tipster said junior associates were “strongly pressured” to attend. If that’s the case — and this sort of pressure can arise in law firms without superiors even realizing it — this is troubling and something that proper precautions and a cautious response can’t overcome.

Culturally, firms need to be prepared to excuse anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable taking the risks associated with a gathering right now. Because even if vaccines help the individual, they may have people in their lives that can’t get immunized yet and firms need to respect that. Partners need to actively police the passive-aggressive pressures that abound in law firms to make sure no one feels compelled to go to an in-person event right now. And this is a long-term issue for firms where partners don’t always grasp that parties can feel like “mandatory fun.” No one should feel like protecting their newborn or immunocompromised spouse is keeping them from networking and advancing their career.

Hopefully, everyone involved in this outbreak will recover swiftly and without further consequence. But it’s a reminder to firms to carefully weigh the demands they’re putting on associates right now because… this thing is still out there.

HeadshotJoe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.

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