The process of law firm movement in 2020 has changed things…a lot.

To be very frank, moving from one law firm to another, particularly as a partner, can be and often is a logistical nightmare. Between the extended interview process, open exchange of information (LPQ’s, firm financial documents), resigning/gently disentangling from the old firm, and notifying clients of the change etc., let’s just say it is a process. A big one.

2020 has brought with it many new challenges and life changes, and these, of course, have impacted the process of changing firms. After over twelve years of legal recruiting including during two very different recessions, I could write a novel on how things have changed in 2020 but for purposes of providing an overview, I’ll stick with three major points:

1. Meeting Logistics

I’ll admit this one is probably fairly obvious, but it bears mentioning because it has a tremendous impact. In the good ol’ days (8 months ago), a partner and firm might start their conversation with just that – a fairly casual and discreet cup of coffee or meal with a hiring partner or office managing partner to see if there is mutual interest in moving forward. This allowed for a low-pressure, social situation to allow both parties to see if there is a basic practice, personality, and culture fit and whether it’s worth the time investment on both sides to continue.

While these casual first meetings are still happening, the medium has certainly changed. It varies quite a bit based on the comfort level of the candidate and how the firm is handling the pandemic. Some firms are not in their offices at all, while others are almost fully staffed in person with precautions. Many folks choose to meet in-person, but often “al fresco” in a discreet location. Others choose to meet in-person indoors with social distancing and other precautions in place. Still, others are focusing on technology to meet their needs – Zoom and other video-conferencing software.

It’s hard to assess how these have impacted the hiring process, but I think it’s safe to say many feel a bit of discomfort without the in-person element. It’s in our nature to read expressions, body language, and other non-verbal cues which can be a challenge to do via video conferencing or even with a mask on. It’s not to say it’s a bad thing, just a different thing.

These “logistical” differences continue through the hiring process. Instead of flying to another office to meet the executive committee, it might be done by phone or Zoom. Instead of meeting with the head of a group in-person, it might be virtual. Instead of having a drink or meal with your future coworkers, it might be a Zoom. You get the idea.

Some firms are moving ahead, leaning on virtual and socially distanced meetings to continue the process. Others have simply hit pause, particularly on more opportunistic hires, waiting to continue the process until important in-person meetings and travel are feasible again.

2. Timing

Timing has always been tricky for partners actively seeking to move. Ideally, most partners would like the opportunity to compare platforms. This requires them to move along at roughly the same speed at the firms they are considering, hopefully gaining enough information to know which firms are not the right fit and possibly receive more than one offer so they can make an informed decision.

The disparity in the timing of the lateral partner hiring process has become very pronounced in 2020. As previously mentioned, some firms have certain processes on hold. Other firms are finding it takes longer to get through the logistics of scheduling interviews and meetings with many of their hiring partners, recruiting personnel, and conflict checkers abruptly pivoting to working from home and all that entails. Still, other firms have been able to recalibrate their hiring processes quickly to keep things moving at a good clip.

Spoiler alert: the firms that are the most agile are getting the best talent.

3. Change in the “Value Proposition”

Firms are evaluating partners in a new light. We’ve seen larger firms with higher PPP and RPL taking a closer look at historical metrics, relationships, and originations, often looking for partners with a higher portable book than they have in years past. To put it another way, they are looking for a safer bet and taking less risk, which is completely understandable given the current economic situation.

Many firms are also focusing on specific, strategic needs rather than looking at partners opportunistically.

From the candidate’s perspective, they are evaluating firms differently. I’ve had many partners tell me that working from home and all the shifts they made in the past six months caused them to personally recalibrate what they need and want from their platform. Things like true rate flexibility, culture, technological and cultural support for remote working, financial performance and health of the firm, and degree and extent of pay cuts and holdbacks are now on the forefront. Many are less concerned (or not at all concerned) about taking a perceived “step down” to smaller, lower AMLAW100 ranked, or regional firms than in years past. Partners are looking for financially stable, supportive and flexible platforms so they can retain and grow their client base during these unique and difficult times.

There are many other subtle and not so subtle differences in the anatomy of a partner move, but the underlying process is still aimed at the exchange of information. It looks different this year, but partners are still moving and law firms, particularly the agile ones, are making great, strategic hires in 2020.

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