In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked major changes in the legal industry—from law schools delaying OCI to firms furloughing lawyers and cutting salaries to lawyers and law students working virtually. But how has COVID-19 affected the lateral hiring market? Vault spoke with a group of legal recruiting professionals to find out their thoughts:
- Matt Moody – Managing Director with Empire Search Partners
- Scott Hodes – Managing Principal at Lateral Link
- Sean Burke – Founding Partner, Whistler Partners
- Becca Blank – Managing Director at Whistler Partners
In this first installment of our lateral hiring Q&A, we explore the recruiters’ observations on how the market has been changing in recent weeks, which practice areas are in demand, and how lateral candidates can stand out during this difficult time. Read on for their insights.
Can you share your observations on how the job market has been changing in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak?
Matt Moody: Everything is changing so quickly that anything I say today will likely be outdated by the time you read this tomorrow. When people first started working from home a few weeks ago, lateral hiring proceeded as usual, and our clients were able to quickly move to video interviews. While processes that began before the crisis hit are continuing, most firms have hit pause on lateral hiring except for critical needs. This moment feels very different than the recession a decade ago, and it seems most firms are taking a wait-and-see approach, especially as lawyers and recruiting personnel are dealing with disruptions in their personal and professional lives. There are some firms at the top end of the market that are better prepared to weather the storm and will likely be buyers of legal talent in the coming weeks and months, but even these firms aren’t launching many new searches at the moment.
The in-house market has not slowed down to the same degree. In-house job searches tend to have a longer approval process and have continued apace. We’ve had candidates interviewing and receiving offers for several in-house positions over the last few weeks, and we have been contacted by our in-house clients to begin new searches as well.
Scott Hodes: As the ever-changing situation with the coronavirus has developed and as we learn more each day, we are seeing a corresponding reaction and response from law firms as it relates to hiring. In many instances, firms have either placed hiring on hold completely for an undetermined period, or at a minimum, have slowed the process down. Although several firms have continued the process with candidates already in the interview process, and some are still hiring despite the current social climate, a significant number of firms have advised that they are in “wait-and-see” mode with respect to current hiring. In general, firms are understandably skittish because this is a truly unprecedented time, and although the overall feeling is optimism that things will rebound quickly, many firms are taking a more careful, measured approach.
Sean Burke and Becca Blank: Observations! Definitely all we can offer is frankly, many employers still don’t know what their numbers will look like for the rest of the year. Honestly, for much of the past couple weeks, employers have mostly either hit the “pause” button for their hiring processes or shifted interviews to video. A portion are in a holding pattern of “wait and see” how things play out, while others are proceeding with caution and looking at longer time lines. This week, we saw more firms announcing definitive hiring freezes.
At the partner level, the deals involving partners who had offers (or were close to getting an offer) are still moving forward.
Have you noticed an increased demand in any practice areas and/or a decreased demand for certain areas?
Matt Moody: This may be obvious, but bankruptcy and restructuring associates are in high demand at the moment. If you’re in one of these practice areas at a firm that is not well-positioned to handle a prolonged downturn, this could be an opportune time to look at a firm upgrade. Several restructuring candidates with whom we’ve worked over a long period of time have quickly gotten interviews and offers the last couple of weeks, and more and more firms are reaching out with bankruptcy/restructuring needs every day.
Scott Hodes: Naturally, in times of crisis and uncertainty, there are certain areas of practice which will be in higher demand, and this time appears to be following that same trend. Similar to the last “depression/recession” in 2009, litigation and bankruptcy have seen an immediate uptick, and as the virus continues to effect the employment market, labor and employment practices will be busier and busier. Although the change has not been drastic yet, I suspect transactional work will slow down until the crisis lessens or passes, and demand in areas like IP and real estate will decrease in the short term. As a result of the unusual nature of this crisis, I suspect we will see some interesting developments and an increased demand in health care as well.
Sean Burke and Becca Blank: It’s no surprise that firms with bankruptcy and restructuring practices are gearing up in preparation for the inevitable surge of work in this area. In the past week, we have seen new searches open at all levels in this practice area. And, it’s a practice that does lend itself to pivots from certain other corporate and litigation practitioners—those who want to stay busy with sophisticated work over the coming period may want to consider opportunities there.
As for pivoting, Whistler is lucky that we’ve got a couple of great recruiters on the team who are well versed in the practice area to lead our clients’ searches and advise candidates! Our own Mat Martin was a bankruptcy practitioner himself in his past life, and his father was a federal bankruptcy judge. So when we work on this area, we’re not chasing trends—we actually have existing expertise!
In other areas, Whistler is known for our deep connections in the tech space. While the global economy is on lockdown, tech companies in the business of remote work and streaming are seeing unprecedented highs. Demand for experienced tech transactions lawyers continues to be strong.
Life sciences and health care are obviously right in the center of it as well. Our clients in this industry haven’t slowed their hiring at all. And if the clients are busy, the law firms (and practice areas) representing those clients will remain busy as well.
What can lateral candidates do to make their applications most competitive during this time?
Matt Moody: Lateral candidates should work with a recruiter that is well connected in the industry and that they trust. That’s always true, but a knowledgeable recruiter is even more crucial in difficult times. When supply starts to outweigh demand, law firms turn to a select group of trusted search firms to disseminate their needs, so they are not drowning in resumes. There are many recruiters who rely largely on submitting candidates’ materials to publicly posted job openings who will not have access to many opportunities. We also act as advisors to lawyers, whether they are looking to make an imminent move or not, and we give honest advice, even if that is to wait things out or to turn down an offer. A good recruiter will have a comprehensive understanding of opportunities in an ever-changing market and will be able to provide true guidance for lawyers’ careers.
Scott Hodes: To the extent a candidate is looking to make a move, it is more important than ever in this environment for a candidate to distinguish themselves. Firms are going to be VERY selective if they are making a lateral hire, and the candidate who has the most on-point experience, a diverse skill set within their practice, and the ability to hit the ground running will be the candidate who sets themselves apart. While this may sound like recruiter clichés, it is a reality in these times because firms are currently working remote, and the ability to spend time in person training candidates is either at a bare minimum or non-existent. Firms need candidates who can step in and help immediately. Candidates that are self-starters, flexible, and willing to help in various areas within their practice and those with management skills will be in particularly high demand.
Sean Burke and Becca Blank: It’s always important to stand out regardless of the timing, but it’s especially important these days. Right now, firms are really paying attention only to applications for focused openings. The days of opportunistic hires of general corporate associates without a focused need are behind us. So it’s not only submitting the right application, but submitting the right application for the right job at the right firm. It’s that specific in the current market. That said, firms are being prudent, but it doesn’t escape them that this is also a time of opportunity to acquire top talent, especially at more senior levels. The answer is, to be most competitive right now, play the right game.
There are still some associate job openings, and not just in bankruptcy. Unlike in-house, where a new hire is thought of on some level as a “cost center,” a law firm hires an attorney to make a profit. If a law firm desperately needs a specialist attorney like a tech transactions mid-level to replace someone who went in-house, they can’t fill that need by switching an attorney from M&A. They will still need to hire someone.
Knowing where hidden opportunities lie is the key here. We’re in the business of information—and we can tell you there are firms who have frozen hiring across the board regardless of who you are, and there are firms who want to hear about rising stars planning for the long term.
Read the second installment of our interview with these four legal recruiting professionals here, including their insights on pursuing a lateral switch now and best practices for video interviewing.
About the Legal Recruiting Experts
Matt Moody is a Managing Director with Empire Search Partners in New York. Matt advises attorneys in a variety of practice areas as they consider lateral moves that will further their professional goals. He places lawyers of all levels into leading law firms and in-house positions across the country. Before joining Empire Search Partners, Matt served as the Senior Law Editor at Vault and as a litigation associate at two Vault100 firms. Matt can be reached at email@example.com or 212-688-9200.
Scott Hodes is a Managing Principal at Lateral Link, which is the highest-ranking position at the company. Scott is responsible for and oversees associate and partner level attorney placements at AmLaw 200 firms and top regional firms in the Southeast, including Florida, Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham and all other mid-markets in the Southeast region
Scott joined Lateral Link in 2009 as its Director of Florida. In June 2010, Scott was named the Southeast Director for Lateral Link, and Atlanta and Charlotte became Scott’s primary territories, along with Florida. In May of 2012, Scott was named Managing Director of the Southeast, and soon thereafter he was promoted to Principal.
Prior to joining Lateral Link, Scott was a practicing attorney for seven years. He began practicing for a litigation firm in Boca Raton, Florida, and soon thereafter joined a boutique four-person estate planning firm in Boca Raton. Three years later, Scott was a name partner of the firm, and by the time Scott left the firm in 2009, the firm had grown to eighteen people.
Scott was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Livingston, New Jersey. He attended the University of Florida, where he graduated cum laude, and the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He also holds an LL.M. in Estate Planning from the University of Miami.
You can reach Scott at 561.503.4817.
Sean Burke is the Founding Partner of Whistler Partners, and Becca Blank is Managing Director at Whistler. They focus on the changing legal landscape known as Tech Convergence. Fashion, Entertainment, Advertising, TV/Movies/Streaming, Real Estate, Financial Services are all being transferred by technology and startups. The future is here, and you need a recruiter who understands the new legal marketplace. Whether it is DTC "direct to Consumer", entertainment tech, adtech, streaming, apps/mobile, proptech, or fintech, Whistler Partners is the expert on this convergence. You can reach Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org and Becca at email@example.com.
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