Decades of legal industry and law firm staffing evolution were compressed into the spring and summer of 2020. As successful as we were going remote and instituting work from home procedures, we have only begun to fundamentally alter our business models in the same way. We weren’t able to cut our cost structures, we didn’t adopt new revenue models; those things will take a much longer timeframe. However, “going remote” opened the door, and our eyes, to more fundamental changes that will benefit our firms and our clients.
As we will discuss below, like it or not, many of our senior associates don’t want to come back to the office. Like nonlawyers huge numbers of them will refuse to do so, at least full-time as they were prior to the COVID shutdown. They want to work remote or at least in a hybrid model. This push away from the traditional office model including in-house counsel down to support staff in a law office will be a catalyst for forward thinking firms to refine the hiring strategies and cut their costs.
New Strategies Embrace Remote Associates
The “associate down the hall” isn’t dead for all firms, but it’s being supplemented or replaced by hybrid and remote strategies in order to retain existing staff and hire from a deeper pool of legal talent while simultaneously cutting costs. We’re seeing this for small law firms across the board to large firms in New York.
Long ago we embraced the early “gig economy” for non lawyers for things like food delivery and transportation, and now those same forces have reached the skilled labor market including the legal profession. The experience and skill level of paralegals and lawyers who are working exclusively on a remote basis has grown exponentially since the beginning of the pandemic.
As we discussed above, these lawyers are making permanent changes in the workforce. They aren’t coming back to the office full time. For them, being a remote lawyer offers welcome flexibility for attorneys to work where they want (digital nomads), find a different work/life balance, retire from their full-time practice without leaving the game completely, or raise a family.
The future law firm will be staffed differently as the issue of retention is forcing the industry to hire remote lawyers as part of long term business development. Remote work offers the chance for attorneys to continue to offer legal assistance and experience in a way that suits their individual needs. And unlike other knowledge-based professions like medicine, engineering/construction or academia, our jobs are perfectly suited for remote work as they don’t generally involve physical human interaction.
You can write a legal brief from anywhere in the world, but you can’t build a rocket while sunbathing on a beach. Even with a few hiccups, staffing law firms remotely has been a logical answer to tackle legal work not just during, but post the global pandemic shut down of many legal departments.
For years the working conditions in most legal practices have been pushing many of our best and brightest out. For decades we have known that the traditional legal career path is not designed for the majority of lawyers. We are among the only industries that have demonstrated pride in holding onto the 80-hour work week and leaving little room for any type of work/life balance. Many in our industry pointed to grueling hours with a sense of pride.
Associates join big law firms out of law school, chasing the dream of one day making partner but what they may not realize, is that at the 250 biggest law firms in the United States there is an 80% chance of being forced out in the “up or out” system. These highly skilled lawyers without the necessary million-dollar book of business to become partner are leaving en masse.
Many trained at the best firms in the world, start their own firms, or chose another path. In some cases, they have developed full-time freelance careers as they are keenly appreciative of its flexibility after big firm burnout – plus they don’t have to manage clients directly when they do freelance work.
Women and Younger Lawyers Are Another Piece Of The Puzzle Of Law Firm Staffing
The negative impacts of the old way of doing things have deeper ramifications when you factor in specific groups in our profession. It’s a tragic commentary on our profession, but according to the ABA, 57% of women leave private practice within five years. These are women that went to law school, passed the bar, many had judicial clerkships, and then worked for a firm for years.
Those metrics reflect that brilliant attorneys find being in private practice is incompatible with their life goals and leave the practice of law. These talented men and women are rejoining the legal force as remote attorneys because they can find what our profession denied them, balance. We will have to address law firm staffing differently as a result.
For the first time in history, meaningful numbers of lawyers are working part-time around their fulfilling lives. Younger lawyers are another piece of this puzzle. While a remarkable over generalization, this is an entire generation of attorneys between the ages of 28 and 40, many with more than a decade of legal experience, that are more concerned with work life wellbeing than previous generations.
How generation addresses allocation of time between professional and personal accountabilities has shifted. This is not something they learned as law students or from firm partners. They don’t measure themselves or their worth based upon the ability to work 80 hours a week. Many of these talented lawyers are building careers designed around flexibility in their schedules, the ability to work and travel, as well as control over the type of work they do and their workload.
A new trend has developed with retired lawyers choosing to work part-time on a remote basis. Whether motivated by the need to “stay in the game”, a love for the law, or financial considerations, attorneys with decades of experience are offering their sage advice on a freelance basis. They have found the best of both worlds being able to practice law without going into the office yet practicing at the pinnacle of our profession at time around their fulfilling lives.
Cost Structure Is Changing
With the evolution of legal tech, the old cost structure relating to staffing in-house counsel, is no longer sustainable. A new trend has developed with retired lawyers choosing to work part-time and provide legal services on a remote basis. Whether motivated by the need to “stay in the game”, a love for the law, or financial considerations, attorneys with decades of experience are offering their sage advice on a freelance basis. They have found the best of both worlds being able to practice law without going into the office yet practicing at the pinnacle of our profession. Fortunately, law firm staffing using remote associates can increase revenue through billable hours.
At LAWCLERK, we have seen first-hand how this opportunity has benefited the firms who hire these senior lawyers to widen the services they can offer across practice areas. The circumstances that foster remote lawyering are nearly infinite, but we see similar stories. Young parents, digital nomads, military spouses, lawyers who are looking to live in rural areas, super specific niche practitioners, law school professors looking to supplement their income. No matter the reason, it’s clear that remote associates are highly skilled, well trained, ready to take on all kinds of legal matters and are here to stay.
No matter the size of your practice, law firm staffing needs will eventually need to be addressed. If you haven’t already, contact LAWCLERK to book a demo today!