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‘A Very Pro-Attorney Market’: The Pandemic Has Given Individual Attorneys More Leverage

By Andrew Maloney for

The pandemic has shifted power away from law firms and toward their lawyers, giving individual partners and associates more autonomy.

From flexible work arrangements to associate pay and the thriving lateral market, individual lawyers appear to have gained significant leverage over management since COVID-19 shut down much of the economy last March, analysts say. And some of that has manifested in the announcements related to office-return dates and remote working policies, as well as special bonuses, signing and retention bonuses and increased associate salaries.

To be sure, lawyers’ power is limited: they still have to do the work, and the work is as consuming as ever, observers noted. And clients may ultimately have the final say over significant questions such as how often lawyers can work outside the office. Just on Thursday, Morgan Stanley’s chief legal officer asked the bank’s law firms to return to offices.

But the fact Big Law had record financial performances while most people worked remotely, and that demand has remained strong in 2021, has given partners and associates more power to move management on office returns, on the lateral market, on compensation and on other benefits, such as mental health awareness.

Jeffrey Lowe, global practice leader of the law firm practice at Major, Lindsey & Africa, said firm return-to-office plans may continue evolving because employees feel like they can mold them. Indeed, Paul Hastings felt enough pressure about its initial statement that it reemphasized its commitment to flexible work arrangements in a subsequent memo in late June.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher this week also said its remote work policy is simple: lawyers have the autonomy to choose when and where they work, as long as the work gets done.

“Right now firms are just feeling like, ‘We don’t really have that much of a choice,’” Lowe said in an interview. “And I think the lawyers realize that and are going to be pushing for as much as they can get.”

He noted some firms have appropriately questioned whether young associates will be properly trained if office time is dramatically less than it used to be. But overall, Lowe said, it’s “a very pro-attorney market.” He said compensation and work arrangements are the main pressure points, but that mental health awareness is another place firms have been pushed.

Skyrocketing demand for services, particularly in transactional and corporate work, has also given lawyers more discretion, Lowe added.

“[Firms are] very cognizant of who has the leverage right now because they’re so busy, they literally can’t find enough people to get all the work done. That’s why you see these tremendous signing bonuses to associates, and the recent salary wars escalating again,” Lowe said, adding firms are “very concerned about putting a line in the sand.”

This translates to concern over how it could adversely affect them both for attracting new talent and retaining talent, Lowe added.

Morgan Stanley’s letter to law firms could lead to even more attorney departures from firms.

“Here you may have a situation where the desires of the client are diametrically opposed to the wishes of a larger number of attorneys at the firm, both associate and partner alike,” Lowe said. “That has the potential to create significant tension within the firm and may even cause some attorneys to vote with their feet.”

Associates in particular “can call the shots these days,” said New York-based recruiter Alisa Levin, of Greene-Levin-Snyder, “and if they are interested in working for Big Law, and they’re willing to work, they have a lot of leverage that we haven’t really seen in a long time.”

She said high-quality partners have always been in high demand and will continue to be in demand. But their ability to bring associates with them makes them especially attractive in the current market.

That’s one difference now, she said. “Firms who are taking lateral partners are more willing to take the associates who travel with them because it’s so hard to get associates,” she said.

The pandemic isn’t the only reason lawyers have gained traction in the tug-of-war with management. There’s also been a steady, generational shift, noted Michael Pierson, managing partner for FisherBroyles.

“Obviously a lot more millennial lawyers are rising through the ranks of law firms. I think there is a genuine desire on the part of younger lawyers to be able to operate with more autonomy,” he said in an interview. “Younger generations of lawyers obviously embrace technology much more quickly, and realize we don’t necessarily have to be with each other to be highly efficient and highly connected with our colleagues to deliver services as if we were sitting together.”