Lawyers and law firms in France are preparing for a “soft opening” May 11, when France is due to start lifting the restrictions imposed two months ago to halt the spread of COVID-19.
And as with soft openings of restaurants, bars and cafés—sectors that will stay firmly closed in France for at least another month—law firms will be proceeding cautiously and watching to see what works and what doesn’t, and they are expecting to adapt accordingly.
Managing partners in Paris told Law.com International this past week that while their offices would be ready to welcome lawyers and staff who wished to return to work May 11, the decision to come back was being left up to the individual.
They expect that most would not be coming back to the office right away—partly because of health concerns about commuting, but largely because working from home is going well.
“The consensus of the international firms is: We’re staying home,” said Remy Blain, managing partner of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in Paris.
“For those who had a negative impression of remote working, this has been a revelation,” said Mustapha Oussedrat, president of KPMG Avocats, which counts 150 lawyers in Paris. “It is now part of the way we work, and we can now give our people more freedom in where they work.”
The French government said last week that intercity train travel and public transportation would be ramped up, but that people who could work remotely should continue to do so at least until June 2, when a second phase of easing restrictions may take place.
Where Are All the Paris Lawyers?
A central goal of this first phase, the government said, is to encourage the 500,000 Parisians who left the city for the countryside when the lockdown began—a quarter of the city’s population—to come home and help restart the economy in the capital.
Many Paris-based lawyers joined the exodus, heading for second homes or family homes in search of more and greener space—and, often, relatives to help watch children while schools were closed.
But the reopening of Paris may take more time if health officials determine that the Paris region is still too risky. The government is proceeding region by region based on two metrics: the number of new COVID-19 cases and the availability of hospital beds for COVID patients. As of early this week, Paris was still in the red zone on both.
While some lawyers and staff have expressed a desire to get back to their former lives, firms are expecting their offices to remain sparsely used for some time, managing partners said.
“Nobody is obliged to come back,” said Olivier Vermeulen, managing partner of Paul Hastings in Paris. “The work is going fine, the government is showing good sense by encouraging people to work remotely—and we are encouraging our people to follow the government guidance if they can.”
“Some people are cracking up a little,” said Blain of BCLP, which counts 70 lawyers in Paris, including 15 partners, according to the firm’s website. “They’re getting tired of being at home. So there will be some who come in to the office. But it’s entirely up to them.”
Many international firms, including Fieldfisher, KPMG Avocats and Paul Hastings, kept their offices open during the crisis in case lawyers or clients needed access to them for research or meetings. But few did.
Christopher Mesnooh, an M&A partner at Fieldfisher who lives within walking distance of the firm’s offices in central Paris, said he went in a few weeks ago to consult some files and stayed for several hours. He saw one other person.
“I like being in the office, all things being equal, and it was very peaceful,” he said. “But to be honest, 95% of what most lawyers do can be done remotely. The work doesn’t suffer, nor does the quality of client service.”
Vermeulen of Paul Hastings agreed. “When the courts reopen, some lawyers may need to be in the office more,” he said. “For now, there is no obligation for anyone to come back, and if you do come back, there will be rules to observe, such as social distancing. It will work for some people and not for others.”
As for face-to-face client meetings, lawyers said those were most likely off the table, at least for the first phase of the reopening, as both clients and lawyers approach their new freedom with caution.
New Office Rules
The French government guidance on reopening offices leaves little to chance, and French employers are liable for negligence if they do not follow health and safety rules.
The guidelines for social distancing specify that premises should be large enough to provide each person with at least 4 square meters of free space in which to work once walls and furniture are subtracted.
Under those rules, a conference room of 700 square meters, for example, comes down to 135 square meters of free space, and its new capacity drops to 33 people from 50 people, according to the government.
Office managers have a long list of very practical tasks that need to be accomplished before the first returning lawyer, staff member or client walks in the door—from providing masks and hand gel to figuring out how to stagger arrivals and departures so as not to overload small, French-style elevators and corridors.
Lawyers said they expect they will have to take a keener interest in how they operate day-to-day than they did before the lockdown—even considering wiping down photocopiers and scanners after each use.
“I think there is a realization that everyone, from the partners on down, is going to have to pitch in to make sure everyone stays safe,” Mesnooh of Fieldfisher said. “It could be as simple as wiping down door handles. And we’ll have to sit down and talk about how it’s working—not just on May 12, but on May 18 or 19 and going forward—and probably make adjustments as we go along.”