Meeting the Client Demand Shift: Recruitment and Staffing

The narrative from corporate counsels has been very consistent over the last few years. From consolidation to pricing pressure, corporate clients are looking for more from their outside counsels than a steady stream of billable hours and solid legal advice. That narrative will continue in 2015, but some clients are taking it to a new level. Those on the forefront of proactive legal management are looking for partners with a like mindset. They’re looking for law firms who are doing something new, different, and client focused.

The way firms structure and work with their personnel is a fine example. For years, the associate to partner track was the only game in town. Then with new pressures both internally and externally, firms adopted new tracks for their lawyers. Counsels, income partners, staff lawyers, or other new titles started to emerge. This trend will only continue and it behooves law firms to adopt new management structures not only for budget conscious clients but for their generational shifts as well. Law firms can take the need to meet client demands as a mantra for meeting the needs of their own personnel’s career aspirations.

Several progressive firms have completely altered their recruiting strategy. Instead of looking for partner track associates, they are now purposely finding lawyers and staff with completely different goals. Examples of potential candidates fall into several categories:

  • Career staff lawyers – Individuals who want to practice the supportive components of law. They are comfortable at a lower salary and usually have no interest in business development, management, or anything outside of getting their primary job done.
  • Partner track associates – The traditional go-getters that want to be the next generation of firm leaders
  • Non-equity track associates – Individuals who want to expand their career but where expansion is more focused on the practice of law, not the business of law. Similar to the career staff lawyer, management or business development is not necessarily part of their aspirations. However, unlike the staff lawyer, they are fully vested in exploring their potential in practicing law and reaping the higher salaries that come with it. Income partner or some sort of counsel position are generally the titles these individuals crave
  • Apprentices – For many firms this idea seems insane, but the reality is that there are some new recruits that don’t necessarily fit the old criteria for hiring. That said, some in the job market are willing to get very little in order to prove themselves. I love this idea. If you can bring in a very low cost lawyer that not only proves him or herself to the firm but also to clients, why not take the risk? Sometimes (actually many times) the B student from New England Law has the desire and life experience to become the future leader of a law firm over the A student from Harvard (purely for example purposes of course.)

This sort of recruitment mentality is not for new lawyers only. It can be employed for non-lawyer fee earners, business staff, and lateral lawyers. Corporate counsels want to see a diverse set of options within their outside counsels. When it comes to bet your company litigation, will they still seek the best of the best? Sure, but those types of cases make up only a minimal fraction of a corporation’s legal needs. That means that the rest of the portfolio should be met with a staff that is budget and quality friendly, not only to the client but to the firm as well. If a firm has strategically staffed for the long-term goals of the firm and its clients, not to mimic the structure of the firm down the street, then they will be well positioned to meet the needs of these portfolios.

Of course a new style of recruitment is only the first step in the process of meeting client demands. Once you have the talent, you need the training, mentoring, and milestones for them to succeed. In fact, recruiting becomes completely secondary to an appropriate structure.

Another component of meeting the needs of a new generation of personnel and clients is how and where firms conduct business. Just for a second, imagine an AmLaw 100 firm with no major offices, low cost infrastructure, and a healthier work-life balance for employees that passes along savings to their clients while increasing compensation for their partnership. It’s possible, but requires a major shift in mindset. That shift is one that all organizations are heading toward, even law firms. However, the legal profession seems to be moving there at a much slower pace. I will be the first to say that having a location to meet with clients, promote internal teamwork, brainstorm, and build an internal culture is important to the long-term health of a firm. I won’t say that this location should be 20 floors in the highest rent building in New York City decorated with flash that could rival the Palace of Versailles.

I have seen enough of the best views in the city and sat in the most opulent conference rooms to know that firms can scale it back a bit, maybe a lot. In addition, I’ve walked the halls of most of the world’s major law firms and can attest that for the bulk of the day you can hear a pin drop across the entire office. These facts, along with the shift in technology, the need to be mobile and closer to clients, and the desire for a more balanced life has convinced me that firms need to adopt telecommuting strategies and downsize their real estate footprint. Some of the top rainmakers in the profession are almost never in the office. They are constantly on the go. The most profitable and largest rainmaker for an AmLaw 50 firm told me he only spends one full day at his office per month and does so only to provide face time. For many fee earners and staff, the need to be in an office simply isn’t as necessary as it once was.

I can remember when Hurricane Sandy hit and a firm had to shut down because their culture had forever dictated that lawyers should be at the office to work and to be seen. That meant no IT infrastructure to support telecommuting and a workforce that was accustomed to only connecting with their clients and colleagues while in Manhattan. With the disaster causing a lengthy delay in being able to work at the office, you can imagine the impact on revenue and profitability this mentality and setup created.

Be it recruitment, training, management structure, or where and how firms do business, it simply does not make sense to stick with the status quo. Think of it from a client’s perspective. Are they more apt to work with a firm that has lower rates, better staffing options, personal attention, and a welcoming disposition to new ideas or one that overspends on space or non-impactful flash, refuses to adapt to changing times, and views those changes as an affront to the way they do business? A rhetorical question, but one that needs to remain in play as firms discuss how they want to address client pressures in 2015 and beyond.


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