How an Ounce of Prevention Can Cure the Legal Talent War

By Mary Smith Judd

The Great Resignation is having a significant effect on the legal profession: In 2021, lateral associate hiring increased a staggering 149% compared to the previous year, according to the National Association for Law Placement with firms of all sizes and in all regions engaging in a fierce competition with each other to recruit and retain the best talent.

The same study also shows that prior to 2021, the highest recorded year-over-year increase was in 2011, when lateral hiring increased by 48.5%. This demonstrates how tight the legal labor market has become over the course of the last 12 months.

The post-COVID-19 pandemic surge in legal work also means already time-strapped firms and in-house legal departments must identify and woo fresh talent to help win the talent wars. At the same time, they must be vigilant to counter the advances of competitors looking to lure away their existing talent. 

In these cases, the right recruitment and retention strategies will determine the victors. The winners will be those firms that forge connections with potential hires before the need arises, developing a pipeline of experienced, available candidates.

Now is the time for creative solutions and there are three tips to help law firms and other organizations to hire and retain the best talent, including:

  • -Knowing how to be a buyer in a seller’s market
  • -Creating talent retention practices that ensure your best employees stay
  • -Developing a talent pipeline to bring new attorneys into the organization

Here’s a look at how your firm can apply these three tips to help manage your way through the talent wars.

Tip 1: How to be a buyer in a seller’s market 

Firms that are serious about hiring the best talent will reject a “this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it” mindset. The recruitment model of yore is not going to work in this time or with this generation. 

The most sought-after group is midlevel associates, generally those with three to seven years’ experience. They are for the most part late-model Millennials, the majority having been born in the early to mid 1990s. Do not underestimate the role that organizational ethos plays in their career choices. To get their attention, define the organization’s culture from the get-go and reiterate its strengths.

Strategically, firms considering non-traditional candidates might see the greatest gains. Firms that look beyond a prospect’s book of business may well uncover hidden gems. Consider, for example, lawyers coming from the public sector. Often these are — or quickly could become — gifted litigators.

Recognizing and offering what prospects see as key to their career advancement and success is vital to the process.  Leverage your firm’s reputational bright spots and assure prospects access to its thought leaders. Other questions that firms should answer for potential hires:

  • -What is the firm known for? 
  • -Is it known for a certain practice area? 
  • -Is it known to be family friendly? 
  • -What is its diversity record? 

Similarly, identify — and reverse engineer — what your competitors are doing wrong. Prospective talent weighed down by unmanageable workloads may be drawn to your firm’s stated work-life policies. Those receiving insufficient guidance may gravitate to your firm’s mentorship program. 

Broaden your sights beyond candidates coming from similarly sized firms or apple-to-apples practice areas. A firm looking for an insurance defense associate, for example, might find much of what they seek and more in a third-year prosecutor.

Likewise those lawyers currently practicing in nonprofit and in-house positions have no portable clients. They may have the requisite skill sets and experience, yet be overlooked by firms.

Another pool to consider is candidates willing to return to traditional practice from law firm-owned alternative legal service providers. These are often mid-level associates who stepped off the partner path. After sampling a work-life untethered to billable hour metrics, they may be ready to return. 

More than two years after the first COVID-19 lockdown, lifestyle flexibility remains key to prospects. Consider the importance – or lack thereof – of location. 

In a survey of firms that hired laterals in 2021, 22.7% reported hiring associates and 23.4% reported hiring other lateral lawyers from outside of their firm’s geographic location without requiring relocation – in other words permanent remote work. 

Conversely, 57% did not hire associates – 64.5% for all other lateral positions –from outside their geographic region.

Tip 2: Retention: batten down the hatches

As the war for legal talent rages, parallels can be made to the early days of the pandemic. But instead of hoarding paper products and PPE, it may feel like Big Law is stockpiling lateral associates.

Mid-size firms in all regions of the U.S. are especially vulnerable as Big Law targets their best and brightest. 

“Firms are hiring from a level or two below where they’re used to hiring, which provides attorneys who would previously have been overlooked a better shot at joining the Am Law 100,” a Philadelphia-based recruiter recently told The Legal Intelligencer.

What’s a regional firm to do?  Try candor and transparency.

Mid- to senior-level associates know their worth. Leadership cannot be afraid to let them know how much they are needed. They are the organization’s connective tissue, critical to developing the firm’s first- and second-years. Personally they may also be at a crossroad. It is the logical time to decide if they will go all in on the partner track or move in-house?

Whatever incentives you are willing to offer new hires, magnify for your most valued talent. These might include bonuses, reduced billable hour requirements, the ability to work remotely, partnership track requirements and billing arrangements.

Tip 3: Make sure you talent pipeline is prepared

The final front of the campaign – building and maintaining a pipeline of suitable candidates — might seem the most daunting. Done right, however, this approach could prove the most productive.

A few years ago, if you asked most legal professionals about their firm’s pipeline, they would tell you about law school recruitment and summer clerkships. Those 2Ls hired for summer 2022 are not going to be fifth-year associates until 2028.

Progressive firms can build mid-level pipelines to address their more immediate needs.

Finding qualified candidates who can hit the ground running will not happen overnight, though. And that’s only the first step. Setting up interviews that work for the prospective firm and candidate can take considerable time.

Firms looking for efficiencies might consider a single-day virtual job fair.

Lawyers looking to make a change upload their resumes in advance while participating firms upload their profiles. On the day of the virtual job fair, candidates can request to be interviewed by firms whose needs and profile fit their goals. Firms likewise can reach out to participants, whose resumes best fit current or anticipated needs. Interviews are scheduled using an online calendar tool.

Building the pipeline is just the beginning. Maintaining those connections is where firms will find their reward. 

Millennials require feedback. So even if you do not have an open position, starting those conversations early, confirming interest and maintaining communication with the prospects are crucial to keeping them on the hook. When they do become colleagues, they will arrive with a foundational buy-in, already invested in your organization.

Mary Smith Judd is an Atlanta-based researcher, writer and former ALM editor. She has covered the legal industry since 1995. 

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