Uncertainty to feature heavily in legal recruitment following COVID-19
Whilst the global coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a range of issues and challenges for legal recruitment, it also presents certain opportunities.
In the second of a three-part series on how the pandemic is impacting upon legal recruitment in Australia, Lawyers Weekly unpacks the myriad issues, challenges and opportunities on the horizon. To read Part One, click here.
Issues legal employers will face
Uncertainty will be the biggest issue for any legal employer at this juncture, G2 Legal Australian director Daniel Stirling submitted.
“It’s hard to plan ahead in regard to headcount and hiring plans when you are unsure where the market will head in these unprecedented times. This may partly explain why there has been a difference between in-house roles and law firm recruitment so far,” he noted.
“Most major organisations will still require their internal lawyers, some more than ever, while firms may be nervous as to what their work pipeline looks like. This gap may widen further if companies look to outsource less legal work and keep it in-house.”
Carlyle Kingswood Global legal in-house director Phillip Hunter identified two major issues to be addressed: respect and mental health.
“Multiple candidates have shared stories of being mistreated in the COVID-19 environment, and these are candidates that will remember this time and once the market starts bouncing back will be resigning. Companies need to realise that they need good staff and if they want staff around when the market bounces back then they need to be thoughtful to the staff in the difficult times… as Maya Angelou said, ‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time’. So, companies that have been cold and unfeeling in their COVID-19 staff dealing should know people have long memories,” he warned.
“And, as for near future or present, treating all your staff with respect is so important; studies show that 3 per cent of staff made redundant in difficult markets are at risk of suicide… we all need to support one another through this time… it’s the Australian thing to do. So, if your employee has just taken out a home loan and they aren’t able to take that 20 per cent pay cut we should be open to hearing their concerns and make special arrangements to support them through this difficult time.”
For legal employers – frankly all employers – during this period, there is the fear and uncertainty surrounding “one of humanity’s greatest challenges”, Taylor Root director and head of Australia Hayden Gordine reflected, as well as the paramount duty of ensuring the health and safety of employees.
“As to the future, there is uncertainty as to the long-term impacts that the coronavirus may have on a firm’s performance. Navigating this environment will be difficult and no doubt ever-changing, but the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass. It is impossible at this stage to know when or how long but it would be prudent to keep an eye on the future, including recruitment,” he said.
Burgess Paluch director Paul Burgess agreed with this, noting that at a workplace level, legal employers will also have to be conscious of ensuring they treat their staff appropriately during this time.
“I think employers who are not seen to be supporting their staff through this will be harshly judged by their employees, who have a long memory of what they perceive to be unjust treatment. For those firms who pass most of the cuts to the staff without the partners taking significant hits I expect they will have low retention rates moving forward,” he predicted.
Such concerns also extend to guaranteeing feelings of connectedness, Gatehouse Legal Recruitment CEO Louise Hvala said in support, pointing out that “high levels of communication” must be maintained in conjunction with consistent productivity.
“In the future, we expect that one of the major issues legal employers will need to face, are the expectations for flexible work arrangements to be fully accommodated, e.g. some employees will request to work four days at home and one day in the office, and the COVID-19 pandemic will be used as a reference point that their work can still be completed to a high standard working remotely,” she hypothesised.
As a result, when it comes to legal recruitment, onboarding and managing staff remotely moving forward, legal employers are “going to have to adopt a new way” of leading and engaging their lawyers, ALMA Search director Ilana Orlievsky said.
“Importantly, the mental health of the legal profession, a topic that has started to gain a lot more traction over the years, should now be even higher on the agenda. It is absolutely crucial that businesses are not only focused on protecting jobs, but also on nurturing their people, particularly those who live alone and/or have a history of mental health issues,” she argued.
Recruitment opportunities on the horizon
Whilst the issues and challenges for legal employers are significant during these unprecedented times, there are also a handful of professional opportunities they can grasp – some of which are present as a result of the aforementioned challenges.
Ms Orlievsky summed it up succinctly: “Lawyers and legal businesses are going to be forced to become more adaptable, innovative, agile, and responsive to sudden changes in the market.”
For Mr Gordine, the “big opportunity” coming out of the pandemic will be a greater acceptance and understanding of remote working. This, he said, will help close the gender gap and promote more female lawyers into the partnership.
“Whole law firms are now set up to work remotely, all partners have now experienced working remotely, the obsession with ‘facetime’ will be left behind after [the] pandemic passes. We will have a new understanding of professionalism and performance that is fairer to mothers and caregivers and one that removes another barrier that professional women face,” he mused.
Elsewhere, Mr Stirling felt that there will be good scope – from a vocational perspective – for professionals to “stand out and be a true partner with your client in this crisis situation, whether you are an internal or external lawyer”.
“If you are able to shine now and show your leadership skills, it can only stand you in good stead for the future. From an employer perspective, it can be an opportunity in regard to both retention and recruitment. If you show real empathy and support to your staff then they will always repay that with loyalty,” he argued.
“It will also help your employer brand when looking to recruit if you are seen as a supportive employer. Additionally, you may find that you are able to hire very high-quality and hardworking lawyers while other employers wait things out. For example, we have seen a number of excellent lawyers who have had to return from overseas sooner than expected or put travel plans on ice and return to the job market.”
From a fiscal standpoint, legal employers can use this time to look at reducing the size of their offices and consequent leasing costs by having a partial or fully remote workforce, Ms Hvala suggested.
“This is very much the wave of the future, she said.
Furthermore, for lawyers wishing to expand or switch their areas of expertise, Ms Hvala continued, the present situation “potentially provides a rare opportunity” of working in other areas within their firm.
“They can offer to assist other departments which have an overflow of work but may have temporarily put on hold the hiring of specialists in this area. In this way an experienced property lawyer might be able to potentially gain experience in, say, litigation or employment law, if they wish. Thus, broadening their skills base,” she said.
On the question of client service delivery, Mr Burgess posited, law firms can use this time to become a more trusted adviser to key clients, “be attentive and supportive to them, and offer plenty of reassurance”.
“They can also sharpen their teams, focus on retaining their best talent and clients, and be ready for the eventual upside when it comes. In terms of recruitment opportunities, now is a great time to be hiring in some hitherto difficult areas, such as corporate, tax, finance, property and commercial law,” he advised.
“For some agile small firms, they see this as an opportunity to cherrypick good lawyers to fill long-vacant needs and some are adopting a very flexible attitude to budgets to allow them to achieve this. In terms of adapting systems to provide more flexible work environments, a lot of firms have been dragged into the cloud as a result of the pandemic, and they have been forced to embrace working from home as the norm.”
These changes, Mr Burgess went on, will be “far-reaching” for firms, which had previously been loath to support working from home, and will benefit lawyers who are parents in particular.
“In terms of cost reduction, it has forced a streamlining of administrative staff, with stand-downs and redundancies more prevalent for administrative staff in law firms. Some of those changes may prove to be far-reaching, as senior lawyers have been forced to adapt and be more independent to allow them to work remotely,” she said.
Mr Hunter opted to quote former US president John F. Kennedy in discussing opportunities, noting that the Democratic leader said: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognise the opportunity”.
“There will be a greater focus on crisis management and preparedness, although we can never prepare for everything we will be ready to respond faster to whatever comes our way. Working from home will no longer be a dirty word; flexible working arrangements will become the norm and this will change the dynamics of an office environment; I believe for the better. Companies will see this as an opportunity to reduce their footprint and in return the costs associated with office space,” he said.
“9-5 is gone… most people we speak to are working different hours, at least overlapping for the most part with core business hours but some are working later and starting later and vice versa. Some, like me, prefer a slower start and a later evening of work… shared with a nice glass of red wine.”
Amid all the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pandemic, and its long-term ramifications on the legal profession, lawyers will understandably have questions about vocational prospects.
Part Three of this series will highlight advice from legal recruiters about navigating this period, as well as feature perspective on the pendulum swings of the marketplace.
To read Part One, which outlined current trends and commentary on the hardest-hit sectors of the profession, click here.