‘Remote Forever’: Lawyers Look to Move Firms so They Don’t Have to Leave Their House

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Changing jobs now can mean a courier comes and picks up your old laptop and another arrives to deliver your new one.

By Bruce Love and Justin Henry | June 01, 2021 at 05:00 AM | The original version of this story was published on The American Lawyer

Editors Note: This story is part of a series on how the highly competitive talent market in the legal industry is reshaping hiring norms in the legal profession.

As firms begin the process of reuniting their attorneys in the office, some lawyers are rebelling—threatening to move to another firm so that they don’t have to move from their home office.

The hesitancy that came from lockdowns and mandated work-from-home orders at the height of the pandemic seems to have entirely dissipated for some partners and associates alike who have embraced the experience and want to make it a permanent way of life.

Earlier this month, some associates professed a hesitancy to return to any form of so-called normal office attendance. Mid-career and senior associates, in particular, felt that they were in their element on Zoom calls with colleagues and clients—able to contribute more effectively to their practices and enjoying greater visibility both in the firm, and with clients.

“I don’t want to go back to the office and the way things were before,” said one sixth-year associate at an Am Law 200 firm who chose to remain anonymous to speak candidly at the time. “I just don’t think I’ll have the same opportunity to contribute the way I have in the virtual environment.”

“You’re going to have to go back,” decried another associate. “Unless permanent remote positions start being offered, and it becomes more common in the legal industry. And if that happens, I think the firms who offer those positions will have a huge recruitment advantage.”

Speaking with recruiters, it seems that it isn’t just some associates who feel that way. Senior attorneys too—partners who can take their book of business with them—aren’t happy about the idea of returning to office life. And while this sentiment may prove problematic for firms wishing a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, other firms are positioning themselves to take advantage of a seemingly growing band of homebound rebels.

Dan Scott is a national recruiter based in Rochester, Michigan, who places partners and associates in law firms, working with “highly successful individuals looking for a change of environment.”

Lately, he says lately he’s had “numerous” lawyers asking him to find them remote roles. And these lawyers are contemplating leaving their current firms because they won’t be able to work remotely in the future, he says.

“In this climate, changing jobs now can mean a courier comes and picks up your old laptop and another arrives to deliver your new one,” says Scott.

John Eads, former Wilson Elser regional managing partner in Detroit who recently moved to Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani, would agree that the ability to work remotely is now a big draw for some attorneys.

Last week, 12 Wilson Elser attorneys in Detriot followed him across to his new firm. He says part of the reason for their move is that younger attorneys and staff will have “more opportunities for upward mobility” at Gordon Rees, because the firm “supports attorneys working remotely by issuing laptops to all personnel.”

Scott says some firms are now specifically offering remote positions to take advantage of what they think will be a flood of talent with preferences to work from home.

“I’m working two positions right now, data breach response, one partner and one associate, both for the same firm,” Scott says. “The fact that the firm will allow ‘remote forever’ is critical to my ability to find them people.”

Scott says around 40% of the firms he is currently recruiting for “don’t care” if new recruits want to permanently work remotely—especially firms outside the big East Coast and West Coast markets: “They’ll make a place for big-market associates looking to move to a smaller market. These firms are simply looking for talent.”

Lori Carpenter, president of Pittsburgh-based Carpenter Legal Search, says many partners are drawn to firms offering remote working arrangements, pointing to the growth of FisherBroyles, which broke into the Am Law 200 ranking with a 2020 gross revenue of $113 million and added 51 partners last year.

However, many firms are concerned that virtual working environments could create barriers when it comes to maintaining a strong firm culture and mentoring younger lawyers, Carpenter said.

“If you’re going to have associates come into the office, you’re going to need partners in the office, so you’re going to need consistency there,” Carpenter says. “The question becomes how does the partnership say to its partners, ‘you’ve got to be in the office with these associates.’”

Recruitment firm Major, Lindsay & Africa’s Deborah Ben-Canaan, who recruits for in-house positions in the D.C. area, says she has seen an increase in law firm attorneys seeking in-house roles that are open to remote working.

“We are starting to see more demand for remote positions with the occasional trip to the office,” says Ben-Canaan. “Especially among younger associates who have a different view of digital and remote working. They are much more comfortable with these environments.”

Ben-Canaan says on the client side she is also starting to see more openness to the idea, however not in industries like defense and aerospace where employees need to be in the office to handle confidential material.

Robert Taylor is CEO and general counsel of U.K.-based 360 Law Group, a global law firm that operates via a low overhead corporate structure by hiring attorneys remotely around the world on a consultant basis. In February last year, Taylor opened a dedicated U.S. business called 360 Business Law America and says he now has a presence in 34 states. Taylor says as lawyers are being told they must return to the office, he has received a flood of inquiries from associates and partners alike at Magic Circle firms in London and white-shoe firms in the United States, looking to find jobs that don’t require them to return to the office.

“The whole market is changing. The big firms are not in control anymore,” Taylor says. “Clients are driving changes in legal services, and they do not care if their lawyers are in an office or working from their spare room. Lawyers realize they don’t have to be at a big firm to do good work.”

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