Legal Law

Biglaw Christmas Get together Turns To COVID Outbreak

Navigating this winter could be the biggest business challenge since the pandemic began. Early on, companies had to pull the plug for personal office work and develop a system to keep revenue fluctuating during a lockdown. But now companies have to make the decision of when to return to the office, balancing the reality of fully vaccinated lawyers and employees with yet another COVID surge and a brand new, arguably more virulent variant.

Some companies have got back on the market, others have postponed it into the new year. But regardless of office politics, companies also have to deal with the mystery of the Christmas party. Could companies finally bring everyone together under one roof to meet and mingle to build a successful culture? Or would it be another sad Zoom party?

Either way, there is no such thing as a good answer. We even asked people in a poll to give us their thoughts on parties.

Unfortunately, a holiday get-together for Latham’s New York corporate division ended on a small breakout. The name of the contact person in the HR department is blackened out.

Thats not cool. Tip people say that more than 10 employees have tested positive since the party (which is a lot for a population that is 100 percent vaccinated according to regulations … ominous Omicron-ic). And yet it’s hard to blame the company for wanting a bit of normalcy.

The company made no attempt to bring the “round hole and square pin” back to normal, as Tammy in Bumblyville refused to wear a mask at Trader Joe’s. Latham came on board with a vaccine mandate with the express purpose of safely getting the company back to normal and issued the request even though almost everyone in the company had voluntarily done the right thing. And if you have to stomp to the office every now and then, you should enjoy the advantage of going out for a drink with a colleague.

But, as many of us learn, the vaccine doesn’t completely end the risk of contracting the virus. My vaccine held up after standing for hours next to another groundbreaking infection in Las Vegas without a mask, but it ultimately fell while going about my daily life. However, the vaccine deserves all the credit for turning my seizure into little more than a minor 24-hour cough.

So how does a company negotiate the ongoing risk of contracting the virus with the benefits of vaccination to protect against severe cases? Public health officials suspect that at this point the virus could be with us forever, and we may have to think of it as “something like the flu,” as many people mistakenly believed to be.

While it is a shame for Latham to be the first of many to be stung by this result, this is where the company is showing the right response. Stay home and get tested if you think you might have exposure – even if you are vaccinated.

Because the problem here is not the existence of a Christmas party in a vaccinated world, but the way the celebration is presented to the staff. A tipster said junior associates were “pressured” to participate. When this is the case – and this pressure can arise in law firms without their supervisors noticing – it is worrying and something that cannot be overcome with reasonable precautions and careful reactions.

Culturally, companies need to be willing to apologize to anyone who is uncomfortable taking the risks associated with having a gathering in the moment. Because even if vaccines do help individuals, there may be people in their lives who cannot be vaccinated yet and companies need to respect that. Affiliates need to actively monitor the passive-aggressive pressures that exist in law firms to ensure no one is compelled to attend a personal event now. And this is a long-term problem for companies where partners don’t always understand that parties can feel like “must-have fun”. No one should feel that protecting their newborn or immunocompromised spouse is keeping them from networking and advancing their career.

Hopefully everyone involved in this outbreak will recover quickly with no further consequences. But it’s a reminder for companies to carefully weigh the demands they are making on their employees, because … this thing is still out there.

Joe Patrice is Senior Editor at Above the Law and co-moderator of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Don’t hesitate to email tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter for all the law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe is also a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.

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