To say that this year has seen major disruption in the law firm world is a gross understatement. But law firms in general, and Big Law in particular, have responded to the pandemic in spectacular fashion. Yet more and more firms we speak with are worried that their singular focus on adapting to this year’s challenges will come at too great a cost next year. Here are seven areas that require firms’ attention as they plan for 2021.
Much of the savings firms have enjoyed this year have come from cuts to marketing and business development budgets (and related travel). Smart law firm leaders we speak with are directing their attorneys to get back into the business development game. Meet clients face-to-face or over video or wherever the client is comfortable. But meet!
Firms need to stay in close contact with their key attorneys to make sure their needs are being met. Do not assume lawyers are happy just because they might be having a good year individually. Lawyers are masters at hiding their true feelings, even more so when they are working from home instead of just down the hall.
In terms of talent acquisition, this “downturn” will be the same as the last one: Firms that keep recruiting new talent will benefit immensely while firms that stay on the sidelines will never catch up. And in our view, recruiting in 2021 will carry less risk for candidates and law firms than ever before. Lawyers and firms who did well in 2020 have already proven themselves. 2020 has been a giant “due diligence capsule” for firms and lawyers.
Finally, firms should consider expanding the geographic scope of their recruiting efforts. This year has dramatically highlighted that the number of lawyers who can do their work anywhere is growing rapidly. The true “market” in a growing number of practice areas is national, so firms should respond accordingly by recruiting nationally to fill their needs.
Every firm we speak with is thrilled with how its investment in technology has paid off this year. But do not assume your firm’s use of technology cannot get better. What other technological tools can be used now that all attorneys (even Boomers) have been forced to embrace technology?
Did your firm’s investment in professional management pay off during the pandemic? Or, conversely, did your failure to invest in professional management leave you ill-equipped to navigate the storm? What positions have proven to be indispensable? Redundant? Professional law firm management is here to stay, and firms that are realizing savings elsewhere might consider adding professional management.
As wonderful as Zoom is, it’s impossible to provide the same mentoring experience for younger attorneys virtually as they receive in-person. That’s due in no small part to the fact that many, if not most, mentoring opportunities aren’t scheduled but rather are serendipitous: You pass someone in the hallway and strike up a conversation. You join a small group of people having an impromptu lunch in a conference room. You pop into a partner’s office to ask a quick question and end up spending 30 minutes talking about everything from your family to your law school days to your favorite restaurants.
To their credit, law firms are working hard to find ways to make up this deficit. The creativity they’ve demonstrated in finding ways to engage with their associates is remarkable. But true interpersonal interaction is irreplaceable. The longer the pandemic goes, the greater the damage to associates’ development.
Professional Staffing Levels
Nearly every firm we speak with has reduced its administrative staffing levels. This has no doubt been a big part of improved profitability at firms. We see no reason to rehire or replace these individuals as we come out of the pandemic. In fact, firms should continue to evaluate how technology might allow them to reduce head count further.
If any sector looks to be a loser as a result of COVID-19, at least in the short term, it is certainly commercial real estate. Law firms were quick to shut down operations and will undoubtedly be slow to move back in. More importantly, the pandemic has given them the unexpected opportunity to test working from home on a major scale and the results have been impressive: The world pivoted and Big Law pivoted right with it.
To be sure, the pandemic is not solely responsible for the expected large-scale reduction in space by law firms. This trend has been underway for years. But like the Great Recession, the shock to the system has accelerated the inevitable. The fact is that law firms do not need anywhere near the space they have. The gating factor, however, is the plethora of long-term leases that most firms are saddled with. They cannot simply wish them away. So expect to see a gradual reduction in space as those leases mature.
Conversely, working from home is not without its downsides: The inability to be physically present surely inhibits the establishment, and replenishment, of the cultural glue that makes each firm unique, and firms are struggling to find ways to preserve it. Moreover, as noted above, the pandemic has also inhibited associate development and mentoring opportunities and, as recent articles have noted, has created a high level of anxiety among associates. Similarly, it’s likely that potential cross-selling opportunities that would naturally arise from close conversation are also being lost.