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Mid Market Report: No Opportunity Wasted: Even as Lateral Hiring Cratered in 2020, Some Stayed Busy

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The lateral market dried up when the pandemic hit, falling 30% compared with 2019. But recruiters and opportunistic firms were as busy as ever by year’s end.

By Andrew Maloey

Law firms immediately recognized the danger of the COVID-19 crisis. But many also realized that it presented opportunity. Top-performing firms further cemented their edge through lateral acquisitions in 2020 and are now poised to accelerate out of the year in a stronger position than they began.

Firms such as FisherBroyles and McDermott Will & Emery joined perennial leaders, including DLA Piper, Cozen O’Connor and King & Spalding, on top of the lateral hiring charts for 2020. Bankruptcy, data privacy and white-collar partners were in high demand, while activity in banking, energy, environmental and tax practices fell significantly.

And although the top-line numbers looked bad—a 30% year-over-year drop in lateral moves and a 23% decline compared to the three-year average from 2017, 2018 and 2019, according to data from consulting firm Decipher—recruiters in multiple markets tell a more optimistic tale about the year’s trajectory and what lies ahead.

Yes, stay-at-home orders implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the spring brought deals to a halt for a few weeks. But the lateral market perked up as law firms adjusted to remote work and more and more attorneys sought greener pastures.

“I don’t remember ever being this busy at Christmastime,” says Alisa Levin, a recruiter and principal at Greene Levin Snyder in New York.

Dan Scott, director of Angott Search Group, says that, in nearly 30 years of legal recruiting, 2020 was one of his best. At least some part of that, he says, is attributable to the practicality of videoconferencing.

“Do you know how hard it is to get five lawyers into the same room?” he says. “Do you know how much easier it is to get five of them onto a Zoom call?”

Recruiters say the pandemic also exacerbated the gap between the top firms and everyone else. Mark Jungers, of Lippman Jungers Bala, says strong firms saw it as a chance to be even more aggressive on the lateral market. Jeffrey Lowe, global practice leader of the law firm practice at Major Lindsey & Africa, says Am Law 50 firms especially used the circumstances to their competitive advantage.

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