The Street Smart Law Blog

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  • Frederick L Shelton

Should a Business Attorney Move During the COVID Era?

The COVID Era has thrown the legal profession of law under the microscope. Clients are reexamining the value they’re getting from outside counsel. Distributed law firms are capturing both talent and market share. ALSP’s have commoditized and eliminated millions of billable hours, of low level work. They have evolved into a ten billion dollar industry.

While some AmLaw’s are walking back previous austerity measures, others are continuing them, either openly or surreptitiously. Some market sectors are thriving while others have been wiped out. A COVID Third Wave seems inevitable.

Should you move now or wait for the Post-COVID Era? The answer depends on your seniority, your firm and what you bring to the table.

Remember the Old Adage: Last One Hired, First One Fired

Who Should Stay Put

If you’re a senior associate or service partner who doesn’t have a portable client base, this is probably not the time for you to move. You’re expensive and your salary is not offset by clients you can bring with you.

If there is a 3rd Wave of COVID (which seems highly likely), that could further disrupt markets, resulting in new austerity measures i.e. furloughs and layoffs.

Remember the Old Adage: Last one hired, first one fired. This is not the time to be the last one hired, as a highly compensated attorney who doesn’t generate revenues.

If you’re a junior to mid-level associate in a practice area that isn’t consistent right now but you’re billing about average or better hours, you probably shouldn’t move.

For example, we have clients whose Real Estate practices are booming because of the industry sectors they service (renewables etc.). However, real estate overall – especially in hospitality, shopping malls, office space etc., is on the decline and the odds are strong, that will continue. So it would be inadvisable for an associate in Real Estate to move, unless absolutely necessary.

Attorneys who don’t have a book of business or whose jobs are at risk because they’re in a dead practice area should not work with head hunters.

Who Should Examine Options

Many of the above described attorneys will be forced to move. If you know or sense that your firm is about to let you go for any of the myriad reasons applicable nowadays, you don’t have the luxury of inertia. This is not the time to hope things will just magically get better. They won’t. This is the time to take action.

Attorneys who don’t have a book of business or whose jobs are at risk because they’re in a dead practice area should not work with head hunters. That may be surprising to hear from a head hunter but it’s simple. If the market is flooded with attorneys just like you and who can be hired for free, why would an employer pay a head hunter’s fee? The fact of the matter is that fees are paid only for attorneys who are high in demand.

On the other hand, you’re a partner with a portable client base in an up-trending practice area, such as bankruptcy, cybersecurity, blockchain etc., now might be the time for you to examine options. Whether you do so on your own or with the help of a head hunter, you should evaluate your current situation.

Are you getting the marketing support needed, to capitalize on the extraordinary market conditions? Do you have to deal with untenable bureaucracy or rate pressure? Are you paid aggressively? Do you have the associate or legal professional support that will help you grow your practice? How well is management handling and more importantly, planning for the changing market conditions that are inevitable? Do you trust and enjoy working with the attorneys at your firm?

If the answers to these questions are overwhelmingly positive, I would posit Rule 1 for Lateral Moves:

Don’t move just for the sake of moving. That’s how mistakes are made.

However, if your practice area is on the uprise and you’re not being treated as equitably as you could be, this is definitely the time to take a look. When the market is as wildly diverse as is the case with the current legal climate, unusual and exceptional opportunities occur.

Partners with a client base as modest as three hundred thousand, have choices. Partners with larger books have more choices. A few of the AmLaw's are actually beginning to innovate. There are boutiques and mid-sized firms with PPP's at or in the seven figure range. Distributed firms are growing at a record pace, and pay up to 80% on your book of business. If you are in a position to look, now is a strategic time to do so.

What about associates?

Associates in practice hot areas such as bankruptcy, insurance coverage and cybersecurity, should do the same evaluation described for partners. Do you have a reasonable lifestyle? Are you getting the type of work you want? Are factors like mentoring, diversity and a promising future, what they should be?

Remember, nothing is perfect so if you have it really good, adhere to Rule #1.

If there is definite room for improvement, it never hurts to get an idea of your current value by testing the market. Work with a head hunter or send out some feelers and see how the response is.

If multiple firms show immediate interest, your value is high and you should schedule some interviews. It’s easier, now that everyone is working virtually, some or all of the time. You might just find something that exceeds your hopes and expectations.

The Takeaways:

The following attorneys should stay put for now: Senior associates or partners who don’t have a book of business. Junior to Mid-Level associates whose practice group is stable at their firm, but not universally. Partners and associates who have everything or almost everything they could hope for, from their firm.

The following attorneys should examine a move: Anyone whose jobs is in jeopardy. Partners with at least a modest portable client base or better, who can identify specifics about what could improve their book of business, their control over their practice and their enjoyment of their career. Associates in high-demand practice areas who can also identify specifically what could be improved.

Frederick Shelton

CEO, Shelton & Steele

Legal Recruiting and Consulting