It’s the most exciting time in the world to be a lawyer.
Professor David Wilkins
Harvard Law School Center
The COVID-19 worldwide pandemic nearly brought the domestic and international economy to a grinding halt. There was a palpable fear of the unknown. We were all clearly worried and questioned how this crisis would affect every aspect of our lives.
The pandemic recognized no boundaries—everyone was dramatically impacted. Attorneys and law firms were no exception. In the beginning, doubts and anxieties were nonstop. Firms wondered if legal work would dry up. Lawyers feared massive layoffs. Together, they feared that the debilitating health crisis would impact financial security in catastrophic ways. “To the surprise of almost everyone,” writes Elaine McArdle of the Harvard Law Bulletin, “2020 ended up being the best year that many law firms had ever had—followed by an even better year in 2021.” In fact, according to Am Law’s annual report, per-partner profits at the largest U.S. firms increased by 13% in 2020 and skyrocketed to 20% in 2021. McArdle concludes, “Lawyers found themselves billing more hours than ever before under once-unthinkable circumstances, including working from home during lockdown and litigating trials online.”
In his Socratic dialogue, The Republic, Greek philosopher Plato famously wrote that “our need will be the real creator”—updated, of course, to “necessity is the mother of invention.” This proverb underscored society’s life-saving reactions to the pandemic—and by extension the legal industry’s equally adept actions. It was a baptism by fire. And there is no doubt that COVID launched the legal profession into “fast-forward” mode when adopting new practices and procedures.
For instance, there was a great leap forward into advanced cloud-based technology systems that was long overdue. Studies show that law office technology advanced about ten years in under ten months. For firms this had to happen since research estimates also indicate that consumers embraced technology in dramatic ways since the pandemic began. Topping the list of technological systems that attorneys promptly integrated into their business model included: cloud-based, remote audio-visual systems for teleconferencing in real-time with colleagues and clients; cloud-based document production tools for creating and sharing electronic copies of documents—and this included electronic signature tools for obtaining remote signatures; and cloud-based data storage and mobile hardware tools for the creation and security of a safe virtual law office environment.
With change comes unintended consequences. Thus, as the pandemic dissipates, the vast majority of law firms and solo practitioners have become virtual firms—and virtual conferencing is here to stay. The technological impact on client communication as well as document creation is transformative and does not require the physical presence of the client, allowing attorneys to offer advice and services well-beyond their home market. Long-distance delivery of legal services may very well result in more competition and choice for clients.
Lasting changes in the legal field shaped by the industry’s reaction to COVID-19 are also influencing transformations that some believe are necessary to achieve efficiency and accessibility in the judiciary. Experts believe any added proficiencies to the justice system may positively impact the need for client’s access to justice as well as the overall affordability of legal services.
“The Rule of Law Has Never Been More Important”
Even before the collision with COVID-19, there were major changes stirring in firms across the nation. Professor David Wilkins of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession focuses on understanding the rapidly changing global legal stage. Along with the economic crisis created by the pandemic as well as major disruptions like the war in Ukraine, change in the profession was well-underway, driven by globalization, technology, and the demand for social justice. He believes the winds of change in the legal profession were “supercharged” during the pandemic. “All of these issues are landing on desks of lawyers in law firms, in-house legal departments, and government offices,” Wilkins said. “The pandemic and related issues have highlighted the importance of law and lawyers—in fact, the rule of law has never been more important.”
Pandemic’s Impact on the Workplace
There are some questions that remain unanswered and only time will help to answer those questions. It appears that attorneys working from home or a hybrid model of working from home and the office is likely here to stay. This reality creates a large gray area: What’s the future of quality litigation and an attorney’s ability to challenge witnesses as well as adversaries, peers, and judges? Will a new generation of attorneys have strong mentoring experiences without in-person interactions? How will a remote model impact the effectiveness of the all-important attorney-client relationship? Once again, only time will tell.
But not all aspects of this new firm/attorney/client paradigm offers uncertainty. Many new features born since the pandemic (as well as from tectonic shifts in society since 2018) offer new and exciting opportunities for those in the legal profession. As discussed above, business and profits for law firms and attorneys have risen dramatically—the need for strong legal minds and representation has never been greater; as we’ve seen, various marketplace factors have contributed to this historic intensification.
Of course this escalating demand for legal services “has been a boon to law firm fortunes,” reports Thomson Reuters. “It has also created an increasing appetite for legal talent.” In turn, this increased competition for strong legal talent forced firms to bolster compensation packages. For example, associate attorney compensation rose in many cases by double-digits.
This was all great news for attorneys either looking to change firms and move up or those entering the job market. But as Thomson Reuters writes, “Yet increasing attorney salaries have not yet stemmed the attrition that many firms are experiencing in their ranks. Attorney turnover has risen to record levels.”
But why? Experts believe the new landscape is about more than money or workload. The 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market created and researched by the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and the Thomson Reuters Institute sheds light on this phenomenon. Here are some highlights.
Why hasn’t increased compensation reduced attorney departures?
“[T]he report analyzed turnover patterns and found that firms with the lowest turnover are not necessarily those with the highest compensation growth. In fact, those law firms that have experienced lower rates of turnover among their attorneys tended to have the lowest compensation growth among firms in the market.”
These results run counter to the expected correlation between retention and compensation. The report concludes:
“[The] loyalty lawyers feel to their firms and their willingness to work hard is not simply, or even primarily, driven by compensation.”
Similar trends also appear to apply to attorney workloads.
“Attorneys at the law firms with the lowest turnover billed on average of 51 more hours per year than their counterparts at firms with the highest turnover.”
The report offers a reason why, one that many other reports and experts have concluded.
“One possible factor influencing these contrary findings is that many lawyers, especially younger ones, may now be giving higher priority to intangible factors, such as feeling appreciated and recognized at work, as well as achieving better work/life balance and mental well-being.”
Therefore, the challenge for firms across the nation has been to strategize beyond compensation, thinking outside traditional lines.
“These intangible factors are factoring more heavily into the thinking of law firm leaders as well. The report identifies additional issues that law firms need to tackle, such as hybrid work and operational efficiency.”
As discussed above, the consensus among industry leaders is that a mix of remote and in-person work will be a conventional reality. The report addresses the challenges associated with this new standard:
“This shift will also raise the prominence of questions surrounding how to manage key areas, such as the equitable assignment of work, mentoring, evaluations, career advancement, and maintaining firm culture in the hybrid work environment.”
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
One of the most important and significant steps forward in the corporate business world, as well as in society in general, is the long-overdue practice (as normal procedure) of “DEI.” Beyond doing the right thing, if the legal profession wants to better serve a growing and diverse customer and client base, firms and in-house legal departments must have a diverse workforce. DEI allows firms and companies the ability to tap into new sources of talent and ideas that will better enable growth.
“The most exciting time in the world to be a lawyer”
Change can show up in many forms. In the United States, since approximately 2018 forward, dynamic change arrived in the business marketplace—triggered by dramatic social change as well as the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. This two-fold action created a challenging environment, one that offered a unique opportunity for the legal profession to alter the way things have always be done by infusing the system with new ideas and priorities.
These consequential shifts in the lawyering world have inspired experienced and young lawyers alike to question customary career paths and success. “The market for top talent has never been as global or as transparent as it is now,” suggests Scott Westfahl, Director of Harvard Law School Executive Education program. He explains that in this environment, attorneys “can vote with their feet and move to other positions where they are more likely to find more of the balance they want.” Westfahl also envisions continued “progress on workplace flexibility, new business models, and greater advancement of women and people of color into leadership roles, in part because of the disruptions we have been facing.”
Professor David Wilkins from the Harvard Law School Center also sees the winds of change being driven by millennials and Gen Z, young blood “ascending into top positions throughout every aspect of our society.” Wilkins believes this reality offers new ideas and methodology “to solving complex problems in our world, and a new energy around trying to find solutions.”
Reflecting on the shifting legal landscape, Wilkins believes that “it’s the most exciting time in the world to be a lawyer because you can be part of these transformations.”
Now is the Time
The bottom-line is clear: now is the time to take advantage of a vigorous legal employment marketplace, especially one that’s intensely focused on the hiring of top-notch and talented attorneys.
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Fueled by this unique job market, we can make it happen for you.