Shanghai. (Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Squire Patton Boggs, influential U.S. law firms with offices in Shanghai, are paying for employees to take taxis instead of public transit. 

Baker McKenzie is asking employees in its Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong offices to work from home. 

London-founded CMS, which already has its employees in Shanghai and Beijing working from home for the extended New Year holiday, said it will continue that policy until it has a better assessment of the situation. 

While not necessarily sounding the alarm, Big Law is taking a strong interest in how China handles a viral outbreak that is poised to expand. The Wuhan coronavirus, which has infected 2,827 people and killed 81, according to China’s National Health Commission, is spreading, and it is becoming a concern for the legal community that lives and works in China.  

The country quarantined the city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated, as well as surrounding areas, in an effort to stop it from spreading. It hasn’t worked. 

Wuhan, with a population of 11 million people, is bigger than the largest city in the United States. There are 56 million people affected by China’s quarantine. That would be like taking the populations of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia and locking them down. 

As Law.com International has reported, the only major global law firm with a presence in Wuhan, which is in the Hubei province in central China, is Dentons. The firm has a partnership with Dacheng in the region. The firm’s regional arm was not available to comment. 

Herbert Smith Freehills, the London- and Sydney-headquartered global firm with offices in Shanghai and Beijing, said the Chinese New Year holiday, which now extends until Feb. 2 in Beijing and Feb. 10 in Shanghai, is allowing the firm to keep employees at home while monitoring the situation. 

Baker McKenzie, which has asked its employees to work from home for the time being, also is suspending nonessential travel.

Our current advice to our colleagues in impacted jurisdictions, based on the latest guidance from the relevant health authorities, is to stay at home if they have recently traveled to those areas in China most impacted by the virus, if they have been in close contact with someone suspected or confirmed to have the virus, or if they are displaying respiratory symptoms themselves,” the firm said. “We are also postponing nonessential business travel to and from Mainland China.”

More than 30 firms were contacted for this piece. Several declined to comment on procedural changes for China or Hong Kong-based staff. Others said they did not have enough information to warrant a statement at this time. Either way, it wasn’t a popular topic to discuss on the record. 

While outbreaks of disease in densely populated areas are always a cause for concern, the Wuhan coronavirus could be particularly troublesome. The Chinese government is taking extraordinary measures to contain the virus and treat those infected. In addition to the quarantine, the government is constructing two new hospitals in Wuhan specifically to deal with the outbreak, and it is sending 1,200 medical and 135 People’s Liberation Army personnel to help quell the spread. 

Although it is a small sample size, the strength of the virus could be of concern as it spreads. The typical flu season sees a mortality rate of about 0.1% of those infected. They are mostly the elderly, very young and those with a compromised immune system. The Wuhan virus, having killed 81 out of 2,827 infected in China, carries a mortality rate of 2.8%, higher than the estimated 2.5% mortality rate of the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. That pandemic killed over 50 million people.

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