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In the War for Talent, Balance Is Midsize Firms’ Secret Weapon

By Lizzy McLellan and David Gialanella for The American Lawyer

2021 has brought a fierce competition for talent to virtually all pockets of the legal industry.

It has also brought pressing and unprecedented questions: How do we alleviate lawyer burnout when there’s so much work to be done? How do we get people excited about returning to the office when they’re still coping with the trauma of a global pandemic? How do we balance the popularity of remote work flexibility with the upsides of in-person interaction?

Answering these questions is daunting. For huge organizations, it may be impossible.

For midsize law firms, however, it’s an opportunity to shine.

None of these questions, of course, has an easy answer. But answering may be easier when leadership is well acquainted with the people they’re leading.

How can a firm deal with lawyer burnout and the attrition that can accompany it?

Midsize firm leaders have noted since long before 2021 that their lawyers are subject to smaller billable-hour requirements, which aids retention. But in the age of remote work and constant connection via technology, preventing burnout may require further steps. That’s where the nimbleness and creativity of a smaller organization can come in handy.

At Bartlit Beck, for example, part of the solution is a less traditional business and compensation model. Compensation for associates is not based on hours billed at all, managing partner Jason Peltz says. Instead, the focus is on tasks accomplished and quality of work.

“Lawyers are motivated to work more efficiently, with an eye toward ultimate success for the client, and teammates are conscious of not simply taking advantage of that efficiency to automatically assign more work,” Peltz says. “Our lawyers recognize that each teammate’s career—as well as their own—is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Midsize law firms know their people and their practices intimately. That’s not to say Big Law leaders are flying blind. But with fewer names on their employee roster, smaller firms have an easier time knowing the needs of each one.

At Pennsylvania-based Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, this plays out in remote work arrangements. While many Big Law firms have released vague guidelines asking people to be in the office regularly, often eschewing a minimum number of days, Weber Gallagher was a bit more transparent in discussing the fact that remote flexibility will vary by practice. Supervising partners of each team are tasked with coming up with a schedule that works for their groups.

“Some are more dependent on collaboration; others are not,” firm chair Andy Indeck says. Labor and employment and professional liability really need in-person work time; workers’ compensation lawyers not so much.

It may seem simple, but providing people with what they really need, rather than imposing a firmwide rule that fails to please anyone at all, can go a long way.

In the corporate arena, the talent wars have been equally spicy this year. The Big Four and Wall Street offered generous monetary perks, and big names in tech offered their usual slate of perks, plus increased acceptance of flexible work arrangements. Smaller organizations, even if they’re household names, had to find their own brand of offering.

Tech companies like Mozilla, the nonprofit behind the Firefox browser, and Bumble, the company behind the popular dating app, have offered their employees not just a week of time away from the job, but a week in which the entire organization is closed for business. It’s a step up from extra vacation time. If nobody’s on the job, it’s easier to unplug knowing that the emails aren’t piling up.

That ability to unplug has long been a wish of lawyers at firms of all sizes, and it’s only become more elusive as technology put work in our pockets and turned our living rooms into offices. Some firms have said they encourage vacations, even granting billable hour credits for a week away. Still, there are those nagging thoughts about the overloaded email inbox and what problems await therein. And so burnout persists.

Closing down the whole firm for a week probably won’t fly in many practices. But imagine the benefits.

At midsize firms, it might actually be a possibility. These are firms that by definition have fewer people, fewer practices and fewer balls in the air. They’re also firms that tout client relationships that are close, personal and meaningful.

If so, perhaps these firms could go to those clients and say: Our people are burning out. They’ve been working long days and nights. They’ve been caring for children in the same place where they’re working for 18 months. And they’re doing all of this amid the white noise of constant updates on a pandemic that has killed millions. They need a break.

We’ve also heard of leave policies, and not just parental or family leave. Corporate sabbaticals have become something of a phenomenon in recent years. And at least one midsize firm we know has been considering such a sabbatical program. (Remember, the legal industry often takes its cues from corporate America.)  

Of course, even for the firms whose clients empathize with that plea, it leaves one big factor to deal with: How does a firm account for a whole week of billable hours lost?

Once again, the answer may seem fanciful to some, but it’s an easy one. For firms that bring in revenue based on work completed instead of hours logged, this is less of an issue.

It’s a model some litigation boutiques are quite familiar with, and it can pair nicely with offering generous breaks from work. Trial work is intense. It can be all-consuming. But when a trial is over, that’s a perfect time to take a break.

Take Susman Godfrey, which offers unlimited vacation and parental leave. That firm, which routinely offers above-market pay as well, isn’t suffering financially by offering that time to its lawyers. The firm brought in gross revenue of $265 million in 2020, revenue per lawyer of $1.59 million and profits per equity partner of $2.43 million.

We know adoption of alternative fee arrangements is growing across the industry at firms that aren’t just focused on litigation. While large firms have a long way to go in reframing their business around work done, instead of hours logged, smaller operations could fast-track the issue. Better yet, boutique firms that are young and building from the ground up can make that move from day one.

As Barlit Beck’s Peltz notes, it’s important that any time saved is not then utilized by the firm. That takes discipline and a solid firm culture.

Creative perks can certainly help with attracting new talent or keeping existing employees happy a little while longer. But the smartest move is the long-term assessment of the business model and how it fits in with what talent wants and what the market demands.

Until someone figures out time travel, moving away from clock-watching could help midsize firms answer some of the day’s biggest questions. Of course, calls to revolutionize law firm billing aren’t new. Neither are calls to truly tackle quality of life concerns for those in the legal profession. Remote work, if you think back a moment, isn’t new, either. And neither, of course, is the fierce battle for talent. But these issues are converging like never before. 

There’s a reason it feels like a defining moment in the legal industry. Because it is one. When there’s a “new normal,” something has to be new.