COVID-19 Spurs Associates To Think Bigger — Like Partners

Lateral associate recruiting is seldom plug-and-play.

The vast majority of placements involve a major shift for the associate moving — a geographical move, a move into or out of BigLaw, a practice-area tweak or a total retool.

But the things that have caused associates to leave the comfort of their firms have been consistent in our time as recruiters — a caustic partner, work that is not quite right, a lack of balance, a less than ideal platform to build a book or a genuine lack of mentorship.

Since the onset of COVID-19, however, associates are asking new kinds of questions that point to a major shift in the lateral landscape.

The virus has changed everything, including the push and pulls of a law firm move. Associates are thinking bigger, like partners do, and we believe that's for the best.

If associates think more holistically and strategically about their moves — and firms are responsive and transparent to their new way of thinking — associates are more likely to stay for the long term, and therefore firms will benefit.

So much cost and energy goes into recruiting and training new associates. A long-term fit means that it's all worth it for both the associate and the firm.

Across the U.S., we are seeing two camps of associates: Those who are beyond overwhelmed — billing well over 300 hours a month — and those who are begging for work.

Associates who have experienced a slowdown have homed in on what makes work more reliable — business-development efforts. Never before in our careers have we had so many conversations about business development.

Associates want to know how rainmaker partners are faring in a world where bonds are not being forged over drinks and dinner. They want to know how they can be involved in those efforts.

Firms that do not have a process for involving associates in business development are raising eyebrows. Associates are thinking not just about how to help their own workflow right now, but also how to build their own books in a world where clients do not seem to be a quick drive or flight away.

Further, associates have a heightened awareness of their firms' clients and want to know that the firm is diversified and has a long-term growth plan.

Previously, client diversification and sector focus were normally only concerns for the most senior associates. But we're now seeing junior attorneys that want to understand the underpinnings of a firm's financial stability.

They want to see that the firm is drawing revenue from a diversified base of industries rather than relying on an industry that has been hit hard by COVID-19. Firms that cannot or will not clearly articulate a long-term growth plan to lateralling associates are at a disadvantage.

Associates are looking at hard data in this world where some firms are soaring and others seem to be faltering. The legal market is no longer the reasonably flat market that we saw for most of the last decade.

Never before have so many — even junior — associates asked us about profit per partner and tiers of partnership — if applicable.

Firms that are opaque about partner pay or that have not been transparent about how any austerity measures are being distributed across different levels of seniority are faring worse in hiring.

Associates are looking at all available metrics to weigh out which shops look stable — or better than stable. On the plus side, all of this suggests that associates are looking at long-term fit rather than a more temporary or transient move.

In big markets, prestige has long been a major driver for associates. In this climate, however, associates seem to be slightly less fixated on brand name and more focused on how the firm platform can benefit their practice.

Prestige still matters — as surely as the world still turns — but associates seem to be more focused on the synergy between what they can contribute and want to build with the workings of the firm, and not just looking for the most sterling law firm name.

Associates also seem very wary of service departments in this market. An associate we worked with recently took a role at a much smaller firm where her team was primary, rather than an offer at a bigger name firm where the team mostly handles work that spins off of another — currently quiet — department.

Associates are paying attention to how firms reacted in March and April as the pandemic took hold. Overcorrection by more fiscally conservative firms can be excused. But firms that have treated staff or associates poorly, maintained pay cuts or enacted furloughs have major strikes against them.

To associates, it suggests the firm was poorly managed before COVID-19 and they assume it will continue to be managed poorly after COVID-19.

Associates have not forgotten how some firms treated their lawyers in 2008 — delaying start dates; promising jobs to newly minted attorneys and then never hiring them; laying off whole practice groups, and failing to be transparent during the entirety of it.

That is still legend even among current associates who were not yet in college at the time. Firms that have responded to this crisis with transparency, a steady hand and a sense of fairness will emerge victorious.

Lateral associates have been forced to think more like partners about choosing a new firm. They are asking deeper questions about the practice area and firm health, how business is developed, long-term strategy and how the firm has adapted to the post-COVID-19 environment.

The pandemic has forced associates to become much more conscientious consumers, which ultimately helps them move into roles that are built to last.

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