The January edition of the Lake County Bar Association’s monthly newsletter, The Minute Sheet, showed just how fierce the ongoing war for talent has gotten in the legal profession — 21 help wanted ads had been posted primarily by northwest Indiana law firms looking for attorneys.
Most of the firms advertising wanted experience with the open positions covering a wide range of practice areas, from personal injury, estate planning and insurance defense to family law, municipal law and Social Security disability. Phrases like “team-oriented environment,” “partner-track position” and “great opportunity” were sprinkled throughout the job notices.
The extensive classified section in the newsletter reflects the need for more attorneys that law firms around the state and across the country say they have because of an increased workload.
Reinforcing the anecdotes is the Thomson Reuters Institute’s 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market, which provides data showing that law firms last year charted significant upturns in work and attorney headcount.
Demand for legal services grew last year at a rate of 4% compared to 2020, and 1% compared to 2019, according to the report. Driving the growth were corporate, including mergers and acquisitions, and real estate practice areas.
In conjunction, lawyer headcount was up 3.9% by the end of November 2021, the highest level seen in more than a decade. The surge in hiring appears to have moderated the growth in productivity even though the workload was heavier. As of November 2021, productivity was up only 0.3% over 2019, and the 124 average billable hours worked per lawyer per month in 2021 was 10 hours lower than the 134 average monthly billable hours lawyers worked in 2007.
Jason Goldberg, senior executive legal recruiter at LHH Recruitment Solutions, pointed out that the problems with supply stretch across all sectors of the economy.
“There seems to be a shortage of supply for everything. You go to your local grocery store or your hardware store or wherever it is … the actual supplies aren’t necessarily there and the people aren’t there, too,” Goldberg said. “So I think in terms of law firms, there’s definitely more of a need now than I’ve ever seen.”
Rhame Elwood & McClure in Porter County is among the firms that placed a wanted ad in The Minute Sheet. Partner Ken Elwood said the firm has been looking for at least two attorneys since the summer of 2021 and, for the first time in its history, is hiring a recruiter to find candidates.
The firm has openings in the practice areas of family law as well as general litigation and collections and is offering a salary range from $70,000 to $100,000 plus the potential for quarterly bonuses. Also, in another sign of how deep the need is for lawyers in the current market, the family law practice already has the business waiting, which is unlike the past, when firms expected lateral hires to bring their own clients.
Still, the job openings have only attracted four inquiries. Elwood attributed the disappointing response to the tight job market and the closure of Valparaiso Law School, which was a pipeline of law clerks and associates to his firm.
“We will not lower our expectations,” Elwood said. “We are a very hardworking law firm. We have a lot of work, but we also all have, from top to bottom, life balance. We ask that our attorneys work hard and we pay them for that work, but we also want life balance.”
Attracting and retaining talent
Within a year’s time, the search for talent has become the dominating concern of law firms. The 2021 Law Firm Business Leaders Report, compiled by the Thomson Reuters Institute, found that issues involving talent were seen as posing the greatest risks to profitability. Comparatively, in the 2020 report, talent did not appear in the top five slots on the list of risks to law firms’ futures.
The 2021 report surveyed 55 U.S. law firms and found 51% identified recruiting and retention of talent as posing the highest risk to profitability. The second and third greatest risks were staff being poached by competitors and increases in associate salaries.
To keep talent, firms increased associate pay 11.3% by November 2021, according to the State of the Legal Market report. Some have gone a step further to insulate themselves from poaching by paying their attorneys to stay off LinkedIn and by discouraging networking and participating in bar associations, because that might introduce those lawyers to competitors.
Allison Pulliam did not have to leave her desk to get job offers. The associate at Eichhorn & Eichhorn in Hammond started getting emails and even a call to her direct line advertising open positions about the time she marked her one-year anniversary practicing law.
She described the inquiries as a nuisance. A single mother of a 3-year-old, Pulliam said she has no interest in moving her general liability and workers’ compensation practice to another firm.
Her list of reasons for staying include her firm’s focus on families, with the partners often asking about her son and allowing her some flexibility in her schedule. Also, she said she feels valued and believes the partners have helped make her better at legal writing.
Compensation is important, Pulliam said, but it is not her top consideration. In fact, she said she would be willing to make less in exchange for flexibility and having a good fit with the firm’s culture.
Goldberg has seen more desire among attorneys for ethereal things such as the ability to work remotely and a good parental policy. Salary is still important, he said, but lawyers who are overworked and underappreciated are going to be burned out no matter how much they are paid.
“You need, as a law firm, to find the thing that’s going to help attract them, whether that’s compensation, whether that’s flexibility around remote working, whether that’s a ‘culture,’ which is harder to convey, especially over video interviews, as opposed to coming into an office and … actually seeing the culture for yourself,” Goldberg said. “That’s up to those law firms in order to articulate in any way that they can, why their place of business is the place of business that should be attractive.”
Samantha Hargitt remembered that when she graduated from Indiana University Maurer School of Law in 2013, the job market was so depressed that new lawyers were focused on just finding a job and worried about the firm’s culture later.
Now, leading the recruiting effort for Dinsmore & Shohl’s Indianapolis office, Hargitt is seeing not only more job openings but also new competitors. Bigger firms that do not have an office in Indiana have been trying to lure Hoosier attorneys with the offer that they can continue to live where they do and work remotely.
“I think our job in terms of recruiting and retention, as a firm, is just to continue to try to make our firm the best option for as many people as we possibly can,” Hargitt said, “and continue to support that collegial culture and continue to support folks’ desire to do sophisticated and interesting work for great clients.”
Compensation is always going to be an important factor, she said — it is the easiest for the candidate to understand. However, an increasing number of potential hires are putting more emphasis on finding the “right place” where they fit well with their co-workers.
Dinsmore is able to respond to that shift because it has always focused on the firm’s culture, Hargitt said. As she explained, the firm has good lawyers who are also nice people, helping to create a collegial environment. In addition, the clients are bringing in complex and interesting legal matters, which provides great opportunities for young lawyers to get experience.
At Eichhorn & Eichhorn, Carly Brandenburg said she has noticed the same shift in attitude, especially among new lawyers. They typically ask about work-life balance at the first interview, and some are wanting to know how working at the firm will fit with their family life even though they currently are not married or parents, she said.
The situation is vastly different from when Brandenburg started practicing in 2007. Then, she often arrived at her desk by 7 a.m. and regularly billed 2,000 or more hours annually for about the first four years she worked at Eichhorn & Eichhorn. Those were the “chips in the bank” that helped her make partner and enabled her to now take time for her young family.
With the associates coming into the firm these days, the emphasis is on making them feel connected, she said. The young attorneys are given more feedback on their work, and they areinvited to have dinner at a partner’s home or join other attorneys for outings.
“We’ve got some really, really good associates right now. I would hate to lose them,” Brandenburg said. “We’re going to have to pay them well, treat them well and give them flexibility and hope that they’re happy, because there are a ton of options out there.”•