As with every other facet of our lives, the legal industry has been hit by the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the news continues about compensation cuts, furloughs and layoffs, canceled or postponed summer programs, and delayed first year-start dates, a new reality is setting in.
While many firms are doing everything they can to save jobs by cutting expenses and compensation, rather than turning to layoffs, there is no crystal ball as to how long firms can stave off the worst-case scenario. The question now on many associates’ minds is how they can best navigate the noise and plan strategically for their careers.
The uncertainty of this crisis and the thought of “Am I next?” is starting to weigh heavily on attorneys across all geographies. For some, that worry has come to fruition. As we continue to be bombarded with information, now more than ever, it is important to take everything with a grain of salt.
Don’t assume that every firm is financially in trouble because they have had to make difficult decisions. Many firms are doing what they can to weather the storm and save jobs as long as they can.
Reach out to those you trust, whether it be a mentor, colleagues or the partners you work with, to gather as much information as you can about what the future may look like for you and your firm. Unlike the Great Recession where the entire system fell apart, the legal industry was the strongest it has ever been only a few months ago.
While many industries have taken a hit, there are others that are thriving, and as a result, there is light at the end of the tunnel for firms that have a diversified set of clients. The legal industry bounced back from the Great Recession, and it will bounce back from this crisis as well.
Assess Your Situation
This is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and every attorney needs to assess their individual circumstances. Review the clients you work with and ask yourself whether they are the ones that are most affected or the ones that are coming out ahead. If you do have clients that have been greatly impacted, what do you anticipate their recovery looking like?
It is also important to look at whether your practice is one that generally thrives in an economic downturn. Litigation, intellectual property, and bankruptcy generally remain strong, while corporate and real estate take longer to rebound.
There is a lot of uncertainty and now is the time to take a more conservative approach to protecting your future—that may be staying at your firm or moving to a firm that provides a better safety net. As most people are working from home and many of those people have a lot more time on their hands, it is a great opportunity to build relationships and find a mentor who can advise you on the steps you should take once we begin to transition back to normal.
Assess Your Firm
This situation has given firms the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to manage a crisis and show how well they value their associates. Law firms are being tested, and how they treat their associates is on full display.
Many firms are going above and beyond with communication, having town halls every week and providing transparency into the firm’s path forward and the decisions that are being made. Other firms are leaving associates in the dark, offering limited insight into their plans as this situation continues to unfold.
How firms are choosing to handle this situation is exposing weaknesses that may not have been very apparent before this crisis. It is providing an opportunity for you to assess whether your firm is the best cultural fit and is the right place for you moving forward.
Stay Top of Mind
Job security is top of mind for many attorneys, and it is important to remember that firms generally don’t lay off their best people. Just because you are not in the office does not mean that you can’t “show up.”
When you are in the office, it is easy for a partner to glance over and see that you are hard at work. This is not true when you are working from home. You have to go above and beyond to remind people that you exist and are a valued member of the team. It is easy to get stuck in your work-from-home bubble and to go dark, but now more than ever, it is vitally important to over communicate.
Pick up the phone more than you typically do, respond to emails that you may not have before, over communicate with your colleagues, set your status in your messaging platform, and maybe even send status updates of what you are working on. Reminding people that you exist goes a long way—it is really the only way to demonstrate your work ethic and give people a glimpse of what you are up to. The longer this goes on, the more important this proactivity will become.
It is hard to maintain a level head when you feel like you are living in a Hollywood movie. While many of us anticipated a slowdown, no one expected it would be the result of a pandemic. Now we are all waiting for what happens next. It is reasonable for this uncertainty to spark anxiety and panic when your job security is suddenly at risk.
Now is the time to take a minute and let reality set in, accept that we don’t have any control over this situation, and hold off on making any rash decisions. It is never a good idea to make a decision about your career out of fear or anxiety, so it is important to get into a more positive headspace before determining the best path forward for yourself.
As law firms continue to navigate through this storm, associates are getting nervous about their fates. Eventually, we will transition to a “new normal,” but while this crisis continues, take the opportunity to reflect on what the best path forward will be in the long term, and be proactive and strategic about what you need to do to stay afloat in the short term.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Summer Eberhard is a managing director in the Associate Practice Group of Major, Lindsey & Africa.