Despite all of the gloom and doom engulfing legal careers, there is perhaps a bit of a rainbow shining through the storm. At least, a panel at the recent NALP Conference seemed to suggest as much. The panel, Lateral Hiring in the “New Normal,” focused on law firm hiring—specifically of lateral attorneys and alternative staff—and included a discussion on an upward trend for lateral hiring.
Joining in the conversation were the following panelists: Gloria Noh Cannon, Director of Lateral Link; Vanessa Dobsen, Legal Recruiting Manager at Alston & Bird; Michelle Fivel, Managing Director at Major, Lindsey & Africa; and Ari Katz, National Director of Legal Recruiting at Bingham McCutchen. According to Katz, the “economy is improving. We are seeing good trends that legal hiring is back.”
What kind of trends are those? One is an uptick in lateral hiring—Noh Cannon described results from a recent NALP survey finding that lateral hiring has increased around 60 percent in 2010. And that number is even higher in New York: 97 percent. Firms layeth off, and firms needeth back when the work picks up, I guess.
But lateral hiring isn’t necessarily what it once was—and I’m not talking about the hiring side. Attorneys themselves are wary of jumping ship. “Associate candidates have a very different mentality,” said Fivel. Associates have been “afraid to leave a secure position to go to a new place,” she explained. Associates believe that if they lateral over and the firm subsequently lays off attorneys, they’ll be the first to go as the new kids in the office. But this mentality has slowly been changing, and attorneys have grown more open to lateral moves lately, according to Fivel.
Maybe a look at another trend is a clue for associates considering the market: spring bonuses. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen,” said Noh Cannon of the spring bonus phenomenon. The bonuses are “really strong indicator[s] of improving times,” she said.
But don’t get too excited—we’re not out of the hole. Katz noted that “firms are right now hiring fewer attorneys.” And some firms are approaching hiring in a completely new way: with alternative staffing models (e.g., contract attorneys, hourly attorneys, etc.). Dobsen shared that the majority of firms have not seen an increase in alternative staffing models in the past 18 months, but alternative staffing is out there. “We don’t know what the future is going to hold but we do think these models, these changes are here to stay in some shape and form,” said Katz.
So what are attorneys and law students to make of all this? Lateral hiring is up—but hiring is still down—and other types of hiring are in? The legal world has been in quite a sticky situation job-wise, and it’s going to take a while to recover. And recovery may not resemble what we’re accustomed to—it may include alternative employment methods and creative thinking to get the industry back on track. After the massive numbers of attorneys laid off, it makes sense that lateral hiring will increase as the economy improves—firms will have to replenish their stores of associates. But that doesn’t mean hiring will come full circle and return to the glory days—the legal industry has been changed, and these changes may be here to stay . . . or just starting.
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