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COVID-19 Will Bring Permanent Changes to Law Firm Recruitment and Integration

By Steve Nelson

As with just about everything related to the practice of law, COVID-19 has brought dramatic short-term changes in law firm recruitment and integration of legal talent. Among the changes already in place:

  • Most law firms are starting their 2020 law graduates in January instead of the fall. And early indications are that the classes of 2021 will be somewhat smaller.
  • Summer programs have been shortened and, with few exceptions, are entirely virtual.
  • Traditional on-campus hiring has been thrown into disarray, as law schools have either interrupted their school years or gone to pass-fail grading (which complicates how firms evaluate candidates).
  • At least 65% of law firms have suspended their training and coaching programs during the pandemic, according to a study conducted by Leadership for Lawyers and Cote Consultants.
  • Lateral partner hiring was down between 35% to 50% in March and April. While most firms maintain that they will continue recruiting partners from other firms in upcoming months, there will be an even greater concentration on teams and individual lawyers who can immediately make significant contributions to the bottom line.

While early analysis indicated this would all be temporary and things would return to normal in a matter of months, it’s become clear that the COVID-19 experience has led many in the legal industry to reevaluate their procedures. Legal industry expert Mark Cohen, CEO of LegalMosaic, recently wrote in Forbes magazine:

Law’s incumbent delivery models, entrenched stakeholders, risk-aversion, and adherence to precedent and resistance to innovation are no match for the pandemic. The Coronavirus has caused the legal establishment to utilize latent technologies, work remotely, engage in online learning, and adopt new methods of operation, delivery, collaboration, and social interaction. In a matter of weeks, the legal industry has undergone seismic change and learned that there are viable alternatives to legal delivery, education/training, and the administration of justice. The legal industry has embarked on its digital journey, and there is no turning back. The profession is no longer holding the reins; buyers are. They are already demanding a re-imagination of the legal function. This will shake up legal education, training, workforce, division of labor, delivery models, culture, pricing, use of data, and shift the focus from lawyers to clients/customers.

Reimagining Law Firm Recruitment and Integration: 6 Trends

This “reimagining” is particularly relevant in the law firm hiring and recruitment process. One example is the mostly receptive reaction lawyers and other business professionals have had to the Zoom meeting. Observers expect firms to sharply reduce attorney travel, as law firm leaders and clients realize that the same results can be achieved through virtual meetings and technology as opposed to a cross-country trip with multiple professionals on both sides.

Law firm leaders should expect the following changes:

1. On-campus interviews likely to be held via Zoom

Students seem to prefer it that way, and the high cost of attorney and law firm professional travel (including lost billing time) makes this a no-brainer. This may have been in the works before COVID-19, as the major accounting firms — which law firms look to as guideposts generally — already had dispensed with initial in-person interviews of college and graduate students.

2. Increased use of alternative staffing companies, particularly those that can provide law firm-ready talent

Most legal observers already realize that the current first-year associate system is under stress, in terms of the high compensation paid, client restrictions on the use of junior talent, and the lack of flexibility in terms of the ebb and flow of legal work. Moreover, because of the economic impact, there are likely to be more junior attorneys with top credentials available over the next couple of years. Since firms will still be looking for “law firm-ready” talent, outfits that can provide state-of-the-art training of these junior lawyers will have a leg up on the competition.

3. More concentration on diversity

Diversity was already top of mind for many law firms, which have been facing attrition among minority and women attorneys. In light of the Black Lives Matter protests and the disparity in treatment affecting people of color that COVID-19 has exposed, recruiting and integrating people of color will likely become a bigger front-burner issue for firms.

4. Further growth of e-learning professional development tools

Again, younger lawyers are more used to online learning tools. Cost and efficiency will dictate less use of in-person trainers, and may even lead to staff cutbacks.

5. An end to the awkward in-person plus teleconference interviews

Anyone who has been in a conference room with both live and remote attendees can attest that these meetings tend to be awkward from a technological and a practical viewpoint. Both firm representatives and candidates will prefer full teleconference interviews over these disjointed interactions.

6. More behavioral assessments

The legal profession had been rapidly increasing the use of outside behavioral assessments, at least with professional staff.  The uncertainty raised when key partners are evaluated with few or no face-to-face interviews may very well lead firms to cross the Rubicon and ask lateral partner candidates to agree to these assessments.

The Culture Question

The most daunting challenge in the “next new normal” will be talent integration, including maintaining firm culture. Firms will have trouble duplicating the informal ways senior lawyers interact with junior lawyers. Nothing replaces the chance meeting at the coffee counter or the lunchroom, or the conversation with partners on an airplane or train trip. Consider, too, the benefits of participating in firm-initiated events such as involvement in charity groups, legal and business networking groups, and even trivia nights. But even as I write this, there are certainly entrepreneurs working on innovative ways to maintain the firm culture in a virtual environment.

The author would like to thank Katherine (Katie) White, Director of Employer Outreach and Recruitment at the George Washington University Law School, for her contribution to this article.

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Categories: Law Firm Hiring, Law Firm Recruitment, Managing a Law Firm
Originally published July 8, 2020
Last updated September 28, 2020
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Stephen Nelson Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson is an executive principal at The McCormick Group, an executive search firm based in Arlington, Va. Steve conducts partner-level searches, searches for in-house counsel, and searches for administrative professionals for law firms. In addition, he serves as a consultant for law firm merger planning, practice area expansion, and in recruiting strategy. Steve is a former attorney with 17 years in legal journalism and publishing and is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow him @SKNLegal.

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