Consider this: you’re in charge of your firm’s hiring process and you’re down to two candidates, both from top schools with stellar resumes. Candidate A has extensive experience in a niche specialty your firm needs but lives outside your firm’s immediate geography and would be primarily remote. Candidate B has limited experience in the specialty but could be in-person every day at your firm. Who’s the right hire?
Recently I posed this question to colleagues, and our answers reflected just how much the pandemic is changing the way we – and Big Law – think about sourcing legal talent.
The pandemic has forced Big Law to embrace remote work opportunities like never before, overcoming long-held resistance to telecommuting technology. As a result, it’s reshaping not just how firms work, but who firms can hire.
For many firms, the legal talent pool is now much broader and deeper than it’s ever been. By looking beyond a firm’s immediate geography, hiring managers can access niche expertise across the country. This access is especially beneficial for in-demand fields like Privacy, Corporate, Intellectual Property, and FinTech, where the experienced talent pool is limited. It’s also ideal for contract placements to handle overflow legal projects or to fill interim vacancies arising from personnel changes, employee leaves of absence or restructurings. In competitive geographies, finding the right hire could be tricky. With an openness to remote placements, there’s no need to compromise on skills or experience.
Telecommuting is Reshaping Legal Talent Pools and the Brick & Mortar Office
Recently, I placed a Privacy Associate at a boutique firm. A year ago, this firm would have struggled to find the right candidate by limiting the role to its geographical region. Now, with the firm open to sourcing talent from other geographies, they could choose between several competitive candidates and make a truly exceptional hire. These success stories may not be the norm yet, but they’re a trend to watch closely in the coming months.
The rise in remote hires is mirrored by how Big Law is thinking about its real estate footprint. A firm’s office size and location has long been synonymous with brand prestige and market credibility. But with many offices sitting empty for the last year, firms are reconsidering their space needs. Even pre-pandemic, firms and other industries were rethinking office layouts, integrating “hot desking” or “hoteling” solutions– open offices or unassigned desks that could be used by any Associate depending on who was in the office on a given day. This change made sense for team members who spent the majority of their time traveling or on-site with clients. It also meant firms and companies needed fewer desks and reduced square footage amounts. The pandemic has accelerated these changes, as firms consider the financial impact of empty office space after seeing just how successful teams can be when working remotely.
The timing also coincides with a broader shift in firm leadership. Millennials are moving into partner roles, and together with Gen X, they’re less tied to in-person work and more comfortable with remote technologies. They’re comfortable with non-traditional arrangements, like “clustering” (being in-person for one week, then remote for the next) or being fully remote. These individuals also seek greater career flexibility, with some leaving firms for contract positions that give them more control over their schedules and where they need to be based.
It’s also important for firms to consider where their current Associates are located. When firms transitioned to remote work, some Associates (and Partners) used it as an opportunity to relocate, moving to be closer to family or choosing cities with a lower cost of living. Firms must consider the role that a location agnostic-approach can play in retaining this talent.
Remote Hires Aren’t Right for Every Firm
Of course, not every firm is ready to make this shift. For some firms, a remote hire simply doesn’t make sense for that firm’s client roster, especially if significant litigation, deposition or trial work will be required. Other firms continue to prefer their new hires be available for in-person work, five days per week. One partner I worked with had concerns about productivity and felt very strongly about the team being in-person at her specific location. Just a year ago, this insistence for in-person availability at a specific location would have been par for the course. Today, however, it’s meant the client passed on several exceptional candidates because they would need to be remote several days per week or use a different branch office. Increasingly, these are trade-offs firms will need to consider: how important is in-person face time versus accessing niche expertise and talent?
There is much discussion about continued flexible work arrangements in Law these days as firms begin to contemplate the return to in-office work. A recent podcast, LegalSpeak, focused on law firms and remote work going forward[i]. A Law.com article broaches the topic of how remote work in Big Law may be here to stay.[ii]
Legal remains a very conservative field. The AMLAW 100 won’t necessarily be filled with announcements of permanent remote work, like other industries and companies such as Dropbox, Facebook and Salesforce. But as remote hiring continues to expand to more traditional practice areas, including real estate, intellectual property, and corporate law, firms should carefully weigh the benefit of remote hires. When talent can sit from anywhere, why not add the absolute best to your roster?