Nov. 4, 2021

Competition for Legal Talent Drives Nail into Coffin of Five-Day, In-Office Work Week

An article by Daily Business Review's Dan Roe as published in LAW.com

Tripp Scott director and chief operating officer Paul Lopez initially asked his attorneys and staff to return to the office full time in July. Then, the delta variant hit, and the 48-lawyer law firm readopted its hybrid working model.

Nowadays, as Lopez plans for the future of Tripp Scott’s in-office working policies, he weighs aggressive competition from rival firms in his decision of whether to eventually ask everyone to return for a five-day, in-office work week.

“We have been successful in retaining employees and paralegals and associates, even though we know recruiters out there are trying to recruit them, because they know they have flexibility,” Lopez said in an interview. “I think that if we went back to five days (in-office) per week, that could have consequences for us because of how actively our competitors are trying to solicit employees with promises that they could work remotely. We’re trying to listen to the marketplace.”

According to South Florida legal recruiters like Joe Ankus of Ankus Consulting, law firms that can’t provide a compelling reason to ask everyone to show up five days per week are at a disadvantage—so, most aren’t.

“I would say at least half of the candidates I speak to either asked me whether remote work is an option when things return to normal, and the other half have said to me that they would prefer to be in the office three to four days per week,” Ankus said. “The remote option remains highly in favor among lawyers with three to seven years of experience.” 

Many first- to third-year associates are trending toward in-office work while the junior and senior partners tasked with training them also raise concerns over an inability to mentor their greenest attorneys effectively.

But for in-demand mid-level associates, who are largely calling the shots in hopping practice areas like real estate and corporate M&A, law firms are bending to accommodate hybrid working requests.

Kinney Recruiting managing director Jack Hopper, who is based in Texas but places attorneys in Miami, said he recently had an elite candidate looking to relocate from a major market back to his hometown in the Midwest. For him, top firms were looking to make exceptions.

“In the case of a firm that doesn’t have an office where a candidate wants to be and is currently living and they’re an elite candidate, it gives the firm a leg up on the competition to embrace a fully remote arrangement,” Hopper said. “It’s a positive development for law firms in this very severe battle for talent right now, particularly on the transactional side.”

Miami-based legal recruiter Chris Holtzhauer of Holtz & Bernard said he has a current candidate who is looking to make a lateral move because his firm doesn’t allow for any remote flexibility.

“I hear it every day from attorneys. Out of 10 [conversations], remote flexibility comes up at least six or seven times,” Holtzhauer said. “Some firms that are still hesitant to give that flexibility, who want people to be in-office because they’re fearful of how remote work affects their culture, those firms are having a tough time being competitive.”

The recruiters said the opposite situation—attorneys changing firms for better in-person mentorship—is most prevalent among the junior associate ranks, although the phenomenon exists at all levels as well.

To compete with law firms that offer remote working flexibility, firms that desire five days per week of attendance are ensuring that time spent at the office is about more than just work.

“Those firms will do a lot of cool stuff,” Holtzhauer said. “Catering lunches, providing snacks to associates, a lunch-and-learn every Friday. A lot of those firms will do activities within the office to make it seem more attractive.”

And among Ankus’ candidates, compensation still reigns supreme, especially in the era of appreciation bonuses. Remote work, rather, is just another lever firms can pull to land the talent they need to keep up with demand.

“It used to just be people would look at reasons for moving as being money, responsibility, and mentorship,” Ankus said. “Now, we’ve added accessibility as part of the equation. And so if it went from three variables we looked at, it’s now gone up to four.”

“We have been successful in retaining employees and paralegals and associates, even though we know recruiters out there are trying to recruit them, because they know they have flexibility,” Lopez said in an interview. “I think that if we went back to five days (in-office) per week, that could have consequences for us because of how actively our competitors are trying to solicit employees with promises that they could work remotely. We’re trying to listen to the marketplace.”

According to South Florida legal recruiters like Joe Ankus of Ankus Consulting, law firms that can’t provide a compelling reason to ask everyone to show up five days per week are at a disadvantage—so, most aren’t.

“I would say at least half of the candidates I speak to either asked me whether remote work is an option when things return to normal, and the other half have said to me that they would prefer to be in the office three to four days per week,” Ankus said. “The remote option remains highly in favor among lawyers with three to seven years of experience.”

Many first- to third-year associates are trending toward in-office work while the junior and senior partners tasked with training them also raise concerns over an inability to mentor their greenest attorneys effectively.

But for in-demand mid-level associates, who are largely calling the shots in hopping practice areas like real estate and corporate M&A, law firms are bending to accommodate hybrid working requests.

Kinney Recruiting managing director Jack Hopper, who is based in Texas but places attorneys in Miami, said he recently had an elite candidate looking to relocate from a major market back to his hometown in the Midwest. For him, top firms were looking to make exceptions.

“In the case of a firm that doesn’t have an office where a candidate wants to be and is currently living and they’re an elite candidate, it gives the firm a leg up on the competition to embrace a fully remote arrangement,” Hopper said. “It’s a positive development for law firms in this very severe battle for talent right now, particularly on the transactional side.”

Miami-based legal recruiter Chris Holtzhauer of Holtz & Bernard said he has a current candidate who is looking to make a lateral move because his firm doesn’t allow for any remote flexibility.

“I hear it every day from attorneys. Out of 10 [conversations], remote flexibility comes up at least six or seven times,” Holtzhauer said. “Some firms that are still hesitant to give that flexibility, who want people to be in-office because they’re fearful of how remote work affects their culture, those firms are having a tough time being competitive.”

The recruiters said the opposite situation—attorneys changing firms for better in-person mentorship—is most prevalent among the junior associate ranks, although the phenomenon exists at all levels as well. 

To compete with law firms that offer remote working flexibility, firms that desire five days per week of attendance are ensuring that time spent at the office is about more than just work. 

“Those firms will do a lot of cool stuff,” Holtzhauer said. “Catering lunches, providing snacks to associates, a lunch-and-learn every Friday. A lot of those firms will do activities within the office to make it seem more attractive.” 

And among Ankus’ candidates, compensation still reigns supreme, especially in the era of appreciation bonuses. Remote work, rather, is just another lever firms can pull to land the talent they need to keep up with demand.

“It used to just be people would look at reasons for moving as being money, responsibility, and mentorship,” Ankus said. “Now, we’ve added accessibility as part of the equation. And so if it went from three variables we looked at, it’s now gone up to four.”

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