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Legal Hiring Lessons Learned During the Pandemic

Jan. 3, 2022, 9:00 AM

When the Covid-19 pandemic started, traditional industries were forced to embrace non-traditional methods of conducting business and recruiting new hires. The legal industry was no exception.

Now, having navigated through a global pandemic and what that entails for almost two years, there are lessons we learned at The Foster Group in 2021 that will help guide us—and others in the legal recruiting business—into the new year.

Disruption Breeds Demand

Anytime there’s a major disruption, there tends to be a sizable demand for legal services. Due to the effects of a global pandemic, many businesses and organizations are seeking guidance from lawyers and legal professionals to advise them on how best to handle a slew of legal issues brought on by the pandemic.

For example, businesses may seek legal help to renegotiate leases for office space that’s no longer being used due to remote work, or for guidance on how to lawfully require employees to be vaccinated to work in an office. We experienced an increased demand for labor & employment attorneys, corporate attorneys, and real estate attorneys. In particular, we saw an increase in demand for experiences, more senior attorneys.

The Movement of the Market

In 2021, the law firm landscape has seen strong demand for associates, which is a strength of our practice and an on-going focus for our team. We saw a 50% increase in associate hiring in 2021, with hires closing more rapidly.

Currently, senior associates are in higher demand than their junior associate counterparts since they require less training, which is meaningful during a time when many firms are operating on a hybrid work schedule. Although firms have taken steps to effectively train their associates remotely and by Zoom, typically a lot of learning occurs by virtue of attorneys working elbow-to-elbow.

Another shift in the market is the movement of associates from lower-tier firms to higher-tier firms.

Easier Transitions

From a legal recruiting perspective, 2020 changed one of the more traditional aspects of the interview process overnight: the in-person meeting. Daily, in-person interviews quickly moved online as social distancing and quarantine became commonplace around the world.

Fortunately, many of us learned how to go virtual in 2020, so conducting interviews, and doing business in general online, was a relatively painless process in 2021. Deals are happening faster and more efficiently. People have grown accustomed to remote work in today’s climate, and the idea of accepting a job in an office you’ve never been to is now widely accepted.

There is no perfect road map to lead the legal industry, or globe, back to the normalcy that we’re familiar with, but there is an understanding that this pandemic is ongoing. Due to the transitions that people made in 2020, such as working remotely, videoconferencing, wearing masks, and cutting back on in-office hours, the familiarity of it all made for a more seamless transition in 2021.

Talent Acquisition Is Evolving

The competition for talent is astronomical. The standard approach that firms used to employ are no longer enough. For example, pre-pandemic, it commonly took three to six months to hire an associate. That time has been trimmed significantly.

It’s become more challenging to find talent because the law firms themselves have adapted and become more creative with their structures, titles, and offers, such as allowing people to work from home. Sign-on bonuses are more readily available than in the past. Also, promotions have become important factors when crafting offers.

Firms are also relocating existing partners to open offices in new locations to attract new associate talent, especially in areas with top-tier law schools nearby. For example, we saw an uptick in recruiting in Salt Lake City and in the state of Tennessee.

For our team, partnering with law firms and understanding their platforms and their opportunities is more important than ever. The fatigue that candidates experience due to a high level of recruiter outreach requires something of more substance to be able to cut through all the outreach and offers they are receiving.

For example, it is crucial that we have a thorough and detailed understanding of the opportunity at the hiring law firm, including specifics on the firm’s performance, their client base, the path to partnership, and culture of the group. In this market it’s not substantial enough to approach candidates with “a good firm that is well regarded.” We really take the time to understand the value of the opportunity and how it translates to the attorney’s career goals. Understanding the short- and long-term opportunity the firms are offering and aligning that to what is important to our candidates is key.

Flexibility

Currently, many attorneys strongly desire flexible work arrangements. Before the pandemic, few firms Big Law firms operated virtually.

Now that hybrid schedules or fully remote work is an option for many legal professionals, however, this is something law firms could and should utilize as leverage when extending offers. Depending on how long the pandemic continues, the possibility of working remotely part- or full-time could be a permanent solution.

Adaptability

The past two years have been one of continuous growth and change in our industry. When presented with change, the most important thing we can do is learn to adapt.

As a legal recruiting firm, we have learned how to reach candidates in today’s market and appeal to what their needs are, not what they used to be. We changed to having Zoom meetings with candidates now instead of in-person meetings, which we used to do regularly pre-pandemic.

Understandably, some law firms may try to hold onto what was previously the norm and try to operate that way. However, it’s tough to recruit for these firms because it is a more competitive environment than they were accustomed to in years past. They will likely find they need to adjust and adapt to be successful.

We as an industry must be ready and willing to change the way we operate to match the needs of today’s market. And heading into 2022, we can expect an even more demanding market.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owner.

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Michelle Foster is the founder and managing partner of the Foster Group, a boutique agency specializing in legal consulting. She has broad set relationships with hiring and managing partners of top-tier firms nationwide and attributes her success to her experience as both a law firm partner and veteran legal recruiter, as well as her approach as a career consultant versus a typical agency recruiter.

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