As law firms look to navigate through unknowns brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, their associates are anxious about what this means for their futures in Big Law, a new study finds.
A new survey released by the legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa and Above the Law, which polled 1,335 associates across law firms, found that job security and cost-cutting measures are the top concerns for associates amid the Covid-19 crisis.
In an effort to weather the economic storm brought about by the pandemic, many law firms have turned to cost-cutting measures to reduce expenses like delayed partner share distributions, salary cuts, furloughs and, in some places, layoffs.
Fifty-one percent of the associates surveyed ranked job security as their top concern, followed by those cost-cutting measures, and mental health.
“It’s no surprise that it’s a top-level concern,” said Ru Bhatt, partner in Major Lindsey’s Associate Practice Group. Even though they might not have been practicing in 2008 and 2009, the layoffs resorted to by law firms in a post-recession world has current associates concerned for their job stability, he said.
“It’s almost an inherited PTSD from what they’ve been hearing,” Bhatt said, using shorthand for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Despite their cost-cutting concerns, the study found that 68.9% of associates said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the overall communication from their law firm and that communication and transparency has actually increased during the pandemic.
Managing partners have been very candid in their communications with associates, which is a departure from what happened in 2008 and 2009, which shows that firms learned from perhaps acting too quickly to slim down their ranks, Bhatt said.
“Instead of shifting immediately to layoffs, using these cost-cutting measures and explaining why makes it feel like everyone is sort of being taken care of to the extent they can,” Bhatt said.
Some 39% of associates have seen a reduction in their workload. Of them, those in real estate saw the biggest decline, followed by intellectual property, tax, and corporate. Not so surprising, 52.6% of associates in bankruptcy practices and 43.8% of healthcare associates said their workloads have increased during the pandemic.
Despite these changes, 93.5% of associates said their billable hour requirements for 2020 haven’t changed.
But one thing that has changed is how they feel the pandemic will affect the legal profession as a whole.
More than 60% of respondents said the crisis will result in permanent changes to the legal industry. Ninety-four percent of associates said remote working policies will change in a post Covid-19 world, while 82% and 66% of respondents, respectively, said the crisis would change technological resources used by law firms and the courts. Over 56% of associates said the pandemic would change the amount or configuration of physical office space.
The survey also found that about four times as many male associates were concerned with the impact the crisis would have on partnership track as compared with their female counterparts. Three times as many women associates listed childcare as their top concern and twice as many women than men listed hitting their billable targets as their primary concern.
“I’m curious why women are more concerned than men about billable hours,” Bhatt said. “It could be that their just worried about getting the work or maybe it’s just working from home is making it difficult.”