Legal employment is way down amid law firm layoffs during the COVID-19 crisis. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the legal services industry shed 64,000 jobs in April alone. For many lawyers, times are tough. But, as Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
Hopefully, lawyers who lost their jobs will be hired back as the pandemic eases and the economy recovers. But we know from experience that, even with economic growth, labor market recovery tends to lag. The period following the Great Recession is often referred to as a “jobless recovery” because while GDP rebounded, jobs took a long time to bounce back.
But, while law firm and in-house counsel jobs may not quickly recover to pre-pandemic levels, that doesn’t mean that demand for legal services won’t recover. There will be litigation, transactions, and employment issues that need to be addressed. Consumers of legal services will require the counsel of smart lawyers. And therein lies an opportunity for recently displaced lawyers — or those who are unhappy with their current job — a silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud.
Instead of defaulting to traditional notions of what a legal career is supposed to look like, use this time of attorney layoffs to reinvent yourself amid the changing legal landscape.
The Trends Driving New Legal Career Opportunities
The COVID-19 crisis is not necessarily creating new trends, it’s merely deepening and accelerating existing ones. A number of these accelerating trends in the legal industry will enable lawyers to fashion new, more flexible legal careers.
Dispersed workforce. For example, the rapid shift to remote work opens up a literal new world of career opportunities. Even before the crisis, many workers were shifting to remote-working environments. A study by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics found that remote work grew by 91% in the last decade. While most law firms resisted the idea that sophisticated legal work could be done by a dispersed workforce, COVID-19 forced a grand experiment, the results of which suggest there is little correlation between someone’s physical location and their job performance. Moreover, clients seem agnostic as to where work is being done as long as it’s getting done at a satisfactory level of quality. Just as more health care will be administered virtually via telehealth moving forward, more legal work will be conducted via “telelaw.”
New legal services providers. Also, over the last two decades, clients have relentlessly pursued more value from their legal services providers. One consequence of their more acute focus on value has been the decoupling of what were traditionally institutional relationships between law firms and corporate clients, whereby clients looked to one provider to address all issues. Clients have shifted from “one-stop shopping” to an approach that more discerningly plugs in the right expert — be it a law firm, an individual lawyer or an alternative legal service provider — as part of a legal supply chain.
Moreover, to reduce outside legal spending and reduce fixed overhead costs, corporate legal departments are increasingly relying on individual lawyers to serve in temporary roles — called secondments — to supplement in-house resources at a variable expense.
In short, the nature of legal work is becoming more flexible. Work can be done from anywhere. Clients are looking for creative, non-traditional solutions. And these circumstances present opportunities for lawyers to reinvent themselves.
Take Control of Your Legal Career During Law Firm Layoffs
While there may be a silver lining to the current crisis, that doesn’t mean that taking advantage of the opportunities will be easy. A lawyer who used to work at a law firm shouldn’t expect that making a transition to a flexible, work-from-home arrangement will happen overnight.
A recent article on Attorney at Work emphasized the importance of taking control of your own circumstances, and explained how gaining “autonomy” is a critical factor in career satisfaction. The evolving legal landscape will empower more lawyers to operate autonomously, but they must take the steps necessary to position themselves for success.
Instead of relying exclusively on fully staffed, fixed-cost teams, law firms and corporate legal departments will be looking to assemble teams based on the specific needs of a project, allowing them to reduce fixed financial commitments in the process. Individual lawyers who hope to compete for these short-term opportunities will need to make clear to the marketplace what they do best. The market will be looking for specialists, not generalists, so consider narrowing your focus rather than trying to play it safe. Just as a law firm must position itself effectively to prospective clients, an individual lawyer looking for flexible working opportunities must, too.
Taking things one step further, an individual lawyer must also make himself and his expertise visible. Lawyers can’t sit back and wait for opportunities to come to them. Lawyers with strong personal brands spend time networking on digital platforms like LinkedIn. They create thought leadership content related to their area of expertise. And they stay on top of trends and developments in particular industries so they’re well informed when engaging in conversations with those who can influence hiring decisions.
One of the risks lawyers who leave the confines of law firms face is that their skills will go stale. They’re no longer in an environment where training and skill acquisition is mandated, or at least encouraged, so they must take it upon themselves to stay up to speed. Many short-term in-house opportunities, in particular, will require fluency with different forms of legal technology, so lawyers should become acquainted with the tools most commonly used by the clients they hope to serve.
Finding Career Opportunities
Since on-site work, be it in a law firm or in-house counsel office, is no longer a prerequisite for short-term engagements, lawyers can live where they want and still do sophisticated work. However, the challenge many lawyers face is finding the right opportunities. Just as in a traditional job search, one of the best ways to identify opportunities is to tap into one’s network of law school classmates, former colleagues, and clients. Another is to look to third parties, such as alternative legal services providers, who are often tasked by law firms and in-house counsel with the job of finding legal talent for short-term engagements.
As the old proverb goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” There’s no time like the present, in the midst of one of the most disruptive events the legal industry has experienced, to reimagine and reinvent your legal career.
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