The current economic situation is not the same, or even a corollary to what we saw during the Great Recession of 2008.
The Great Recession was purely a financial crisis — starting primarily in the housing sector. This crisis is entirely the result of an extraordinary external factor: the coronavirus.
One of the challenges in this unprecedented time is how to predict exactly when the U.S. economy will rebound, and more specifically, when law firms will feel steady enough to hire in the robust fashion of 2019 — or even the more meager additions of 2011.
One issue in tracking job gains is that the reported numbers inherently lag behind COVID-19 developments. This timing discord creates some uncertainty for hiring, and while the legal industry is better adapted to the work-from-home environment than many other industries, it is also historically one of the more risk-averse sectors.
The recovery is likely to come in with a whimper, not a bang. Firms will be hiring conservatively well into 2021, if not beyond. They will presumably maintain their austerity measures, as increasing or simply protecting profitability will continue to be a mandate.
When the hiring market does pick up steam, those who want to move will be in head-to-head competition with a deluge of their peers. The market has become — and probably will remain for the foreseeable future — a firm-driven market, not a candidate-driven one. Gone for now are the signing bonuses, the generous relocation packages or possibly even end-of-year bonuses altogether, depending on the practice area.
So, what does this mean for lawyers interested in a making a move to another firm or another market? Associates who want to find the diamond-in-the-rough job should be ready to jump and be pragmatic about their must-haves.
Do not drag your feet.
All hope is not lost, but now is not the time to wait. This is not the time to make a flippant move, but if you are certain that you want to change — firms, cities, states — time is of the essence. There will only be more competition in the coming months and year.
Layoffs will create a heightened version of the current dynamic wherein firms can be incredibly selective. Candidates need to make a mental shift away from the 2019 market when they had the pick of the litter and could make demands of firms. That moment has passed. The early, decisive bird gets the worm in this new economy. Associates have gone from being the buyer to being the seller.
What does it mean to move aggressively in this market? Be open to what's available. Your region may be slow at the moment, but other regions are booming by comparison. Have you considered a move to the San Francisco Bay Area? If so, now may be the moment — it has more open law firm jobs than anywhere else in the country right now.
It feels scary to make a big move right now, but the rewards can be rich. If you're in a sought-after practice area — such as complex commercial litigation, intellectual property litigation, technology transactions, mergers and acquisitions, and capital markets — now may be as good a time as any in the coming year to jump.
Determine your deal breakers but have an open mindset.
If you wish to make a move, you need to have a flexible mindset — in terms of compensation, practice area and other considerations. It's a new reality, but accepting this context and working within it will allow you to still achieve your career goals.
There are compelling, exciting jobs available, but they may not check all your boxes or come with all the bells and whistles you were hoping for. This is a moment for thinking strategically about how to get as much as you can of what you want. It is not the time to hold out for the perfect role or package.
Some of the primary factors that are driving law firm associates in this market include:
Some firms cut pay, others didn't. It's rare that there's true stratification in the market.
Some firms are more stable at the moment than others. Look at your firm's client base, and the client base of firms you're considering.
Associates have had time to think, and many have realized that where they work now isn't meeting their needs. It's the simplest, most elemental driver. If this resonates, it may be time to make a move even if the place where you land isn't objectively perfect.
Overall, it's important to focus on the key points. Do you like the work? How about the partners? Do you see a positive trajectory either to partnership or an in-house position from this role? Does the firm seem able to pivot to succeed in this market?
You of course shouldn't settle, but you should be aware of the other market pressures creating scarcity and consider if a new opportunity might be closer to what you ultimately want than the role you have now.
Stay ready so you don't have to get ready.
Heading into fall 2020 and winter 2021, when opportunities pop up, associates will need to capitalize on them quickly. If you have already updated your resume and related materials like writing samples and your deal sheet, you won't have to scramble.
Order your law school transcript; this process can take a surprisingly long time. You should also update your online presence now. LinkedIn profiles are one of the first places that firms go to research a candidate's background. A professional profile picture and a profile that matches the candidate's resume go a long way toward establishing trustworthiness.
Now is a good time to think about who would make a good professional reference when you are called upon to provide one. Also, reconnect with these references now, so they are aware that you may be looking and can act quickly when you need a recommendation.
Finally, take a moment to think about the core elements of a law firm move — what you have to offer and what you want to find. If, in looking at your current role at your firm, you don't feel like you're contributing enough, join a committee that is meaningful to you, or write a substantive piece for the website. Demonstrate your value in a way that will translate both at your current firm, and as pieces of flair for your resume.
Remember that a new role might actually be safer than your current one. Firms that are hiring now are doing so thoughtfully and conservatively. The positive aspect of that is that you can rest assured that a new role, hired in the context of COVID-19, is fireproof. Your current role was likely filled outside of the COVID-19 context and, therefore, may not be indispensable to the firm.
It is a hard adjustment to realize that your skill set and experience — hard won and carefully developed — don't open all of the doors they did just a few months ago. However, law firms are hiring. If you're pragmatic and realistic about the options, now can be a great time to find a new professional home.