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BigLaw Perth offices getting back to business

Australia’s BigLaw firms are welcoming staff back into their West Australian offices, albeit in staggered and conservative fashions.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 19 May 2020 Big Law
BigLaw Perth offices
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As of Monday, 18 May 2020, the West Australian government has implemented “phase two” of its state roadmap for easing restrictions imposed in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Part of that second phase – as per the West Australian Department of the Premier and Cabinet – is encouraging Western Australians to return to work unless they are unwell or vulnerable.

While returns to the office may still be a way off in cities like Melbourne and Sydney, BigLaw firms have started bringing staff back out west, as they consider how best to adapt to the “new normal”.


Which firms are already returning staff to Perth offices?

HFW has been fastest out of the gate in bringing staff back to the office, having invited staff back in Perth from Monday 4 May. According to the firm's Perth managing partner, Matthew Blycha, "we have been getting steadily busier since then".

"The timeline for our other offices will be developed in the next week or so," he added.

Gilbert + Tobin followed a similar trajectory, with Perth-based staff having returned from Monday 4 May.

“WA is more advanced [in unwinding restrictions] and our office has fewer people and significant space, [and thus] we have begun with a staged, lower-density return,” a G+T spokesperson said.

“In fact, approximately 50 per cent of the lawyer/support group went back with the balance working from home and the groups switching locations from Monday, 11 May.”

Ashurst staff out west were encouraged to return to the office from Monday, 18 May unless they were “unwell, in a vulnerable category or prefer to continue working from home”.

The firm’s Perth office will, an Ashurst spokesperson noted, have numerous protocols in place to protect staff and clients, including but not limited to flexible office hours, continued use of virtual meetings, regularly cleaning of meeting rooms, limits on number of persons in confined spaces and contactless hand sanitiser dispensers.

MinterEllison noted it will be moving “very limited numbers of staff” back into its Perth office this week, in accordance with West Australia implementing phase two.

“It is a very gradual and cautious transition. It is limited to business-critical and client critical, with a strict limit to the number of people at any one time,” a Minters spokesperson told Lawyers Weekly.

Allens will be allowing its staff out west to work from the office by the middle of this week, a firm spokesperson said.

“Like many organisations, we are working through the best approach to facilitate working from the office. We are considering a range of options, taking into account government and expert advice and input from our people,” the spokesperson said.

“We will encourage ongoing flexibility as our people return to our offices and build on the lessons learned.”

Similarly, Herbert Smith Freehills expects to see small numbers of its Perth-based staff return to the office from this week.

“We are planning a phased approach to reopening. Overall timeframes will depend on when, and how, restrictions are curbed – which will vary across locations. At present, we expect our Perth office to reopen first, followed by Brisbane and then Sydney and Melbourne,” HSF executive partner Andrew Pike said.

“Our priority is to reopen our offices in a way that ensures the safety of our people and clients and protects the continued efficient running of our business.”

Squire Patton Boggs is also seeing staff return to the office in Perth this week, albeit with staggered days and hours and "with the necessary social distancing, increased cleaning and changed meeting practices".

Which firms will return staff to Perth offices shortly?

Clayton Utz will be implementing a phased return to its Perth office from no earlier than Monday, 25 May, involving “strict” requirements of no more than 30 per cent capacity in the office at any given time, staggered start and finish times, limits of 10 persons per client or internal meeting, limited catering and no interstate travel.

“We’re still encouraging people to work from home where they can unless there’s a business/personal critical reason not to,” a Clayton Utz spokesperson said.

Clyde & Co has also begun a phased return to the office in Perth, with firm managing partner Michael Tooma noting that its east coast offices will follow shortly.

“However, we wish to be prudent and considered in our approach and intend to allow people to choose between working from home and working in the office depending on their circumstances during the initial phase,” Mr Tooma added.

DLA Piper is opting for a more conservative approach, with its Perth office beginning a “gradual, phased return” from the end of the month.

“At this stage, we expect our Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne offices to begin the process later, likely from mid-June, but we will continue to closely monitor the situation,” a DLA spokesperson said.

“While some of our staff will be keen to start returning to the office, some will understandably be concerned about the risks, or have caring responsibilities that will make it difficult to return. No one will be expected to return to the office if they do not feel comfortable doing so.”

Other firms’ plans

Allen & Overy didn’t specifically note when its Perth-based staff would return to the office en masse, but did say that said office had remained open for those who have been unable to work remotely, and that any returns will be done in accordance with public health advice and wellbeing needs of staff.

In a similar vein, Norton Rose Fulbright managing partner-elect Alison Deitz said that the firm’s “unlock committee” was planning a staged return to the offices in line with governmental advice.

“We are finalising a detailed plan and timetable now which will be further informed by a staff survey that is currently live,” Ms Deitz said.

A spokesperson for Dentons said that the global firm does not yet have specific dates for the return of the majority of employees to the office, but that its plans will be “consistent and coordinated” across all states in Australia.

King & Wood Mallesons said it has decided to "move to phase one of our plan to open up our Perth centre to larger numbers of people from Monday 25 May. During this initial phase, working from the office or from home will be a personal choice for our people".

"We are continuing to plan for a phased return to all our offices, guided by advice from Federal and State governments and using our experience in our Perth office to help guide us. The health and safety of our people, our clients and the community remains our first priority," KWM chief executive partner Berkeley Cox told Lawyers Weekly.

“Our first priority will continue to be the health and safety of our people, our clients and the broader community and we will only fully reopen our offices to the extent we receive specific confirmation from the state and federal governments that it is safe to do so and we have finalised our strategies internally and with our landlords to manage this appropriately,” a KWM spokesperson told Lawyers Weekly.

K&L Gates also did not note a return date in Perth, but said it had "developed a cautious, staged plan" to ensure a safe return for employees to the office.

"Some offices [across the globe] have reopened while the majority, including Australia, continue to work remotely," a K&L spokesperson said. 

Finally, a spokesperson for Corrs Chambers Westgarth said that the firm intends to take a “conservative approach” to the use of its offices in the immediate future.

“Our first priority is the health and wellbeing of our people and our clients. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, but for now we will be primarily operating on a remote basis as we have been for the past couple of months,” the Corrs spokesperson said.

At this time of filing this story, responses about firm plans for Perth offices had not been received from the following: Clifford Chance, DWF and HWL Ebsworth.