Market News

Lateral Hires Mushroomed In 2021, More Expected In 2022

By Kevin Penton, for

Lateral hiring at top U.S. law firms in 2021 rose 83% compared with 2020 and 27.5% compared with 2019, as firms struggled to keep up with work as the legal system restarted following pandemic-related shutdowns, according to a report released Thursday.

Litigation led the way among the roughly 14,140 lateral moves made in 2021, followed by corporate, intellectual property, labor and employment, real estate, banking and tax, according to Leopard Solutions’ annual State of the Legal Industry Report. The data provider expects the hiring trends to continue into 2022.

“Conservative entry-level hiring practices that bolstered Big Law firms after the Great Recession constrain them now as they struggle to find associates for the mountains of work after pandemic shutdowns,” the report says.

Desperate firms not only hiked how much money they were willing to pay associates to walk through the door, but also handed out signing and special bonuses, agreed to pay for various educational programs, shortened the path to partnership and even offered to pay off law school loans, according to the report.

Yet the pathway to becoming a partner is getting longer on average throughout the industry, the report found. As recently as 10 years ago, it took new attorneys an average of slightly over three and a half years to become a partner. Yet in 2021, the same average was over eight and a half years, according to Leopard Solutions.

“Instead of keeping the high-value partnerships within reach, the goalposts keep moving each year, and the barrier to making partner is getting higher and higher,” the report says.

Leopard Solutions noted that as more attorneys demand increased family and home time and ultimately opt to walk away from the profession rather than deal with the long, grueling hours that law firms require before offering them partnerships, firms must look to reconfigure the system or face even larger shortages of workers.

“We see a clash of wills coming and it may very well upend the old model,” the report says. “Firms will need to bend more and look at reducing the road to partnership. A few have already started these initiatives and more will need to.”