Can small firms capitalise on a ‘Great Resignation’ in BigLaw?

Can small firms capitalise on a ‘Great Resignation’ in BigLaw?

28 October 2021 By Jerome Doraisamy
Great Resignation

If a predicted mass exodus of professionals from their jobs in the coming months manifests – including BigLaw lawyers moving on – boutique practices may find themselves with new opportunities.

The ‘Great Resignation’

Earlier this month, Lawyers Weekly reported on the likelihood of a “Great Resignation” in Australia’s legal profession, following research from tech giant Microsoft revealing that over 40 per cent of the global workforce is actively considering leaving their employers.

Lawyers Weekly has also reported on how the Great Resignation” could affect in-house lawyers and teams.

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As Keypoint Law CEO Warren Kalinko noted, there will be “pent up demand” for change from lawyers of all stripes, especially now that the nation’s major cities are emerging from extended lockdowns.

Legal People partner Sharon Henderson added: “I am hearing from many [candidates] that they are burned out in their current role and set to start looking once 2021 is over.”

Moreover, Burgess Paluch Legal Recruitment director Paul Burgess noted, “low-interest rates, strong demand for employment and an economy highly supported by government COVID-19 support could be providing fuel for a storm once restrictions are eased in the major employment markets of Melbourne and Sydney”.

In light of such predictions, it is pertinent to consider whether smaller law firms are in a position to take advantage of attrition at the big end of town, and what the “Great Resignation” could mean for such growing practices.

As Peripheral Blue founder and managing director Mellissa Larkin puts it, there currently exists an “amazing opportunity for boutique firms, like ours, which offer that rare combination of foundational flexibility and blue-chip work, to attract the sort of top-tier talent which may historically have opted for more traditional employment options” if the mass exodus does materialise.

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In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Ms Larkin posited that whenever people are exposed to, or impacted by events which are outside of their control, the “natural response is to want to take control over whatever aspects of your life you can”.

“A pandemic during which both the government and employers have imposed requirements and restrictions on behaviour and movement certainly qualifies as one of those events outside of people’s control and which may naturally prompt people to reflect on those things which they can control,” she explained.

“I am a firm believer in making life choices – both personal and professional which align with your values, and I think that following people’s experiences during the pandemic, people have perhaps had either the time and space to reflect on those things which are truly important to them and bring them happiness.”

Even before the age of coronavirus, Ailier director Paula Robinson mused, lawyers were changing the ways that they worked, particularly given the advent of legal tech and subsequent accommodations for remote working.

“The impact of COVID-19 was probably two-fold – first, people may have stayed in roles longer than planned while there was uncertainty about the future and job security became even more important. Those same people also had an opportunity to experience working more flexibly first-hand. Now things are returning to ‘normal’, people are reconsidering how they want to work and whether the return to ‘normal’ is for them,” she detailed.

“The result will be more movement in the market as people find roles that work for them.”

Adelaide-based Rose Cocchiaro, who is the founder and managing director of Resolve Divorce, said that there is an “influx” of lawyers from Sydney and Melbourne migrating to South Australia to “escape the impact”.

“Resigning from structured, inflexible working arrangements, limiting work-life balance is likely to be an outcome that exists for a lot of firms if they don’t adapt and innovate. I think they are likely to turn to boutique law firms as those firms are better placed to offer star performers workplace flexibility by way of working from home and part-time flexibility as well as achieving real job satisfaction by being client-centric and outcome-focused; something more boutiques tend to focus on specifically,” she outlined.

“This provides the lawyers a sense of value and recognition as they support and guide their clients to make an impact on them; something people are rethinking in the post-pandemic world; about the value they are contributing to the overall community and how they can make more of an impact on the world.”

Blackwattle Legal founder and principal Trevor Withane is slightly more circumspect on the likelihood of the “Great Resignation”: “Stripping it back to basics, we all have bills to pay, and my guess is deep down, we probably value job security – especially with all the uncertainty and disruption caused by COVID in the last couple of years”.

This is not to say, however, that he is oblivious to opportunities for his own firm if and when they arise.

Opportunities on the horizon

Boutiques like Blackwattle, Mr Withane went on, “offer excellent work, top-tier clients but with the benefit of more flexibility and career progression potential than some larger law firms, should be attractive to those professionals leaving bigger firms”.

“Boutique law firms should be looking to capitalise on any natural disruption to the market for lawyers, and pick up top-tier talent who have had the benefit of excellent training which could enhance the offering (or even perception) of the boutique firm,” he advised.

Ms Cocchiaro agreed: “As well as more flexible working conditions, as long as the boutiques are competitive with salaries as well as being prepared to offer them a broader spectrum of work and exposing them to more complexity and opportunity for career development and personal growth.”

“With more demand than ever for innovative, out of court legal options, particularly in the family law space, boutique firms have the client base, resources and attitude to offer lawyers the opportunities that they are seeking to take more risks in their legal practice and think more holistically about the service they give clients than in the larger firms,” she said.

There are “exceptional” boutique law firms in the market, Ms Robinson reflected and noted that this has been the case for many years.

What has changed, she said, is the opportunities boutique firms now have to “get their story out and compete with bigger legal employers”.

“Boutique firms can often offer lawyers quality and specialised work in a specific area of interest, such as sports and major events law as is the case for Ailier,” she said.

“From personal experience, they also offer better work-life balance solutions for people with responsibilities outside of work – I could not juggle my working mum life if I was still in a top-tier firm!”

Highlighting such differences will be critical for smaller firms, Ms Larkin insisted.

The values of lawyers, she said, are “generally not working every hour under the sun at someone else’s beck and call at the expense of your health and personal relationships”.

Having been “hugely disappointed by the way in which their employers have managed their working requirements, that experience has made them question whether their personal values align with those of their employer”, she said.

Grasping opportunities

Boutique law firms must act quickly in the current climate if they are to capitalise on a mass exodus from the big end of town, Ms Cocchiaro believes.

“[They must promote] their ability to facilitate flexibility while offering competitive salaries and opportunities for candidates to really sink their teeth into interesting work. It’s about promoting this to the open market,” she said.

Moreover, firms must be innovative in allowing existing staff to “build their own way of working”, to the extent that it is mutually beneficial for both the firm and the employee, she added.

“Boutique firms have that ability to be flexible with each employee, tailoring their own employment experience, something that larger firms cannot compete with,” Ms Cocchiaro stressed.

Ms Larkin supported this, noting that shared values are at the heart of her hiring choices.

“I think that this trend towards the focus being on candidates looking to move to firms which align with their values and not just career, but life goals will continue. So, I think if leaders are clear and authentic about their company’s values and communicate those in a meaningful way, people who are looking for a change will take that leap if the messaging resonates with them,” she surmised.

Ms Robinson’s firm takes a similar approach: “At Ailier, we keep things simple. Our message to our team is to always exceed client expectations. If this is happening, we don’t mind how our people put their work week together, where they work from or how they work. We’re proud of our flexible and unorthodox approach, and our clients love the results,” she proclaims.

Ultimately, in order to attract and retain talent that might be on the lookout for new roles in the near future, Mr Withane said that boutique firm owners have to emphasise the key selling points of life in such a practice.

“Don’t think you have to offer the prospect of a lazy environment to lawyers where they can play ping-pong all day just because you are a boutique – good lawyers want to be stretched and valued at the same time,” he explained.

“We, for example, give our lawyers good exposure to clients and training and opportunities to develop their own potential client base – this is with a view to their actually being able to achieve partnership, but we also expect dedication and deep intellectual rigour to be applied to their work.”

Other reflections

Hopefully, Mr Withane mused, the “Great Resignation” will give law firms of all stripes pause for thought as to why their staff might want to resign and how best they can retain those staff. Which might mean, he said, “adopting permanent work from home solutions and the like”.

People will always give their best, Ms Larkin submitted, when they are motivated and inspired to do so.

“It’s hard for that to happen when they’re burned out and exhausted chasing the billable hour and particularly so, when that pressure is exponentially compounded by the impacts of a pandemic. If you give people agency over their work and career, they’re not just busy and productive – they’re fulfilled,” she suggested.

More broadly, Ms Robinson said she is not sure that “law is still a career for life”, and that some practitioners may see themselves taking a different vocational path in the post-pandemic market.

“I know of many successful lawyers who have gone on to have meaningful second careers doing many different things – in the corporate world, NFPs, directorships, government, as authors and musicians, teachers just to name a few,” she listed.

As such, she argued, allowing one’s staff room to grow in ways that make sense to them will be essential.

“Practising law is a privilege, and many of us recognise this and want to be able to give something back. Law firms who recognise this and give lawyers the space to be able to do more outside work are more likely to have better staff retention in the future,” Ms Robinson concluded.

Can small firms capitalise on a ‘Great Resignation’ in BigLaw?
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