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Uncertainty and nervousness were dished up to our planet, unordered; the global pandemic had arrived in the form of COVID-19 and there was no sending it back. Very little, if anything, has not been affected either directly or indirectly by this unforeseen and awful arrival. This article may seem inconsequential, but rest assured it is not a polemic or a diminution of the impact it has had on too many lives; it is merely an observation regarding how the pandemic impacted on business in general and law firms, in particular, in relation to hiring processes. A major concern was how organisations would continue to find, screen and acquire senior individuals whilst all being locked down. Necessity is the mother of invention or, to be a little more practical, the mother already had some kids in the form of Teams, Zoom and existing conferencing technology. Law firms, the clients I work with, were able to rise to the challenge and virtual hiring came to the fore. In fact, in the legal sector (after some sonorous knee-knocking) went into overdrive and the appetite to acquire individual partners and teams drove recruitment processes into the badly-lit embrace of virtual hiring.

Legal recruitment and the pandemic

Traditional business practises were turned on their head almost overnight. However, initial anxiety quickly gave way to levels of business activity unseen since pre-GFC days. In the wake of Covid’s social and economic ‘upper-cut’, practices such as M&A, private equity, finance and technology (amongst others) boomed. As such, there was – and remains – a real and rapacious need to hire lateral partners. The result has been a transfer market which is red-lining. To execute on securing top level hires and, importantly, to continue servicing client demand, law firms have been impressively agile. Remote interviewing and virtual onboarding were introduced almost overnight.

Speed is both helpful and critical

The pandemic’s key change to all recruitment is obvious: the physical became digital. Pre-pandemic, in industries like the law, it was typical for a senior move to be preceded by a string of face-to-face meetings both domestic and international with inherent and real confidentiality concerns. But in 2020, with one (maybe two) prods of the ‘Join' button and a deft ability to ‘Unmute' the meeting was convened. Firms were able congregate large groups of partners, across time zones, without the prospective lateral having to leave a library-backgrounded home office.

Clearly, the efficiency technology afforded has been immense. Intense competition to secure lateral partners amongst top law firms in key practice areas meant the ability to secure a marginal gain was or is a ‘must'.

As the markets open up with capital being deployed, we know that hiring is on the up in many sectors, with many partners also receptive for new opportunities. As the lateral battle intensifies, what the legal market shows us is that swift decision making is no longer just desirable, it has become essential for pulling ahead of the pack. There is no doubt that at the senior level there is no real substitute for in-person meetings. Hiring is not an exact science; it is an art. In the case of law firms where the business structure is a partnership, each partner has a financial interest in the success of any new partner or team. The same goes for the partner joining the firm. The economics of the deal on both sides must work, of course, but it will be the personal chemistry which seals it.

Getting to know digital faces

What’s more, 18 months ago, very few partners, if any, would have considered joining a firm without meeting a courting firm’s senior team or visiting its offices, a sentiment that I am sure is mirrored in many other ‘people-driven’ industries. However, the pandemic has changed attitudes as much as it has changed processes.

It is a lesson useful to all. There is no substitute for in-person meetings, but we have been thrown a curve ball and, in a very short space of time, have adapted, admirably, to a new normal. I, and many of my colleagues, have completed lateral processes conducted entirely remotely. Some candidates have been fine with this, others more reticent. Nonetheless, there is proof of concept albeit one that we have had little choice in employing.

By way of example, we were working with a senior candidate in the early, in-person interview stages when the pandemic first struck. Fortunately, the hiring firm was on the front foot in adapting to virtual meetings and the candidate’s process was minimally disrupted. In fact, we found that they had quicker and easier access to the firm, as they were able to schedule more frequent calls with the senior team and ultimately gained exposure to a greater number of people, including international colleagues. Finally, once the partner had started, the entire integration process was executed successfully by way of remote meetings.

Perhaps what has become most clear from working in legal recruitment during the pandemic is that virtual hiring can play a critical role in sustaining growth. With high levels of business activity during the pandemic, partners (as well as associates) were needed to service ever-increasing workloads and technology assisted firms in securing them. Arguably, it has demonstrated to an industry previously reliant on face-to-face hiring that technology can be a formidable accelerator.

Where now?

The pandemic has changed attitudes to working life, principally around the need to be permanently based in an office. There has been more than enough commentary around the various ramifications of a new attitude towards office attendance but, for what it’s worth and as it relates to the sector in which I operate, law firms seem to have taken a pragmatic view on accommodating this change to working ‘norms’. Nonetheless, this has been balanced with the fact that law firms, like many other businesses, work hard to maintain a culture. In pursuit of this there will be, and is, a return to being able to meet prospective partners in person.

Many of the law firms, particularly US, remain hungry to acquire accretive, high-performing partners in a transfer market which is hugely competitive. The use of virtual meetings will, in my view, now play a fundamental role in allowing firms to act swiftly and efficiently in securing important hires. It will not, of course, replace in-person meetings; rather, it will be an additional piece of hiring firepower. Law firms who embrace the use of technology as it relates to lateral hiring will have that all-important marginal gain.

I’m now on mute…


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