Cooley keeps office return optional for 2021, eyeing hybrid future

Cooley LLP office in Manhattan, New York City. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

  • Silicon Valley-founded firm will require vaccinations for all offices
  • Return plan contrasts with harder line reflected by Morgan Stanley letter

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Cooley, a Silicon Valley-founded law firm known for its tech industry clientele, said Tuesday it is not requiring U.S. attorneys and staff to return to the office for the remainder of the year.

But starting on Labor Day, anyone who wishes to enter Cooley’s 11 U.S. offices – including its lawyers, their clients and guests – must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to an internal memo reviewed by Reuters.

In a message to all U.S. employees on its office return plans, Mark Pitchford, Cooley’s administrative and legal practice partner, said the firm will detail its post-2021 policies later this year. But he signaled that Cooley will take a hybrid approach, allowing for both in-office and remote working.

“Essentially, we have evolved to such a degree that our workplace of the future will be neither fully remote nor fully in person,” Pitchford wrote.

The announcement puts Cooley in line with another Palo Alto firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which last month said it was also not setting a mandatory return date for its employees. Many other firms have set dates for office returns but offered part-time or flexible in-person schedules.

It’s not only Silicon Valley firms that are adopting this approach. Chicago-founded Katten Muchin Rosenman told its employees last week that, although it is fully re-opening its offices after Labor Day, in-person attendance isn’t generally required.

Still, the potential limits of Big Law’s flexible future were put into stark relief on Thursday, when Morgan Stanley’s longtime chief legal officer urged its outside counsel to get their employees fully back into the office, warning that lawyers working in the office “will have a significant performance advantage over those that do not.”

Morgan Stanley’s harder line stands out even within the financial services industry, but it may reflect differing expectations between industry sectors. Some major technology companies like Facebook Inc have emphasized permanent remote work options since the pandemic.

Even as many have embraced remote work options, law firm managers have raised concerns that it’s difficult to train new lawyers and maintain firm culture without some degree of physical presence in the office. Cooley’s Pitchford also emphasized the importance of office time in Tuesday’s memo, writing that “the Cooley culture we cherish – and which so differentiates us from our primary competitors – is the product of the trust and bonds we developed over the years by sharing experiences in person.”

The approach firms take is likely to become a big issue in recruiting and retention as the country moves through the pandemic and eventually beyond it. An April survey from legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa found that only 11% of law students born between 1995 and 2000 expect to work fully in the office.

(Note: This story was updated to include reference to Katten Muchin Rosenman’s recently adopted office return policy.)

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Morgan Stanley’s CLO wants you back in the office – for good

Q&A: Wilson Sonsini’s optional 2021 office return, and what comes next

David Thomas

David Thomas reports on the business of law, including law firm strategy, hiring, mergers and litigation. He is based out of Chicago. He can be reached at and on Twitter @DaveThomas5150.

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David Thomas