Looking at the plethora of changes in the legal profession today, it might be enough to fill “1001 Arabian Nights,” or at least a volume called “1001 Trends.” Many of the changes have been discussed (some ad nauseam), but here are a few that may not have appeared yet on your radar screen.
New associate hiring. Beginning early this year, large firms started increasing their new associate hiring for the first time since the recession hit. But midsize and smaller firms haven’t done the same—although they have good reasons for this. During the recession it was mostly large firms that made substantial cutbacks in associate ranks. Now, with the demand for legal work increasing, they need to “replenish their farm system.” Most midsize and smaller firms, on the other hand, didn’t make the kind of layoffs that the large firms did. In fact, many of them obtained additional business because of their lower rates, keeping their existing associates busy through the downturn. Furthermore, some midsize firms don’t hire associates straight out of law school. As the managing partner of one of these firms said to me recently, “We let the big firms train associates and then we hire them as needed when they’re tired of the pressure at the big firms.”
Social media policies. With the explosion of social media, clients are seeking their law firms’ counsel on how to manage social media in their businesses, especially their employees’ use of it. More significant, an increasing number of law firms are recognizing the need to develop social media policies for themselves. An obvious reason: Once something appears on the Internet, the author loses all control of where the statement goes, so social media policies are needed to lock the stable door before the horse runs away.
The drive for such policies has been accelerated even more as the result of a post that an Akin Gump partner wrote on a blog concerning an memorial service in January. Although the blog was not affiliated with his firm, and the partner later apologized for his remarks (which will not be repeated here), the firm’s chair issued a statement saying, in part, that it found the partner’s remarks “to be insensitive and wholly inconsistent with Akin Gump’s values.” Reports of the incident quickly spread through legal media sites.
In addition to what can be called “insensitive” or “distasteful” comments, some of the issues that have emerged with social media involve client confidentiality and other ethics concerns, litigation and e-discovery issues, and even jury selection. But social media policies can be a touchy subject. So to develop them, firms are using an array of internal resources, including their labor and employment lawyers, other partners and associates, and their human resources, IT and marketing departments, with some also retaining consultants as part of the process.
Bar association memberships. Bar membership at the national, state and local level has declined in the past several years. This is generally blamed on the recession—but there is at least one association running counter to this trend. It is the Montgomery () Bar Association, which actually saw an increase in membership in 2010. As quoted in a March 25 Philadelphia Business Journal article, Carolyn Carluccio, president of the association, said it has made an effort to reach out to government, corporate counsel and young lawyers to drive up membership. It will be interesting to see what other initiatives associations take to increase their numbers as the economy rebounds.
Nonequity partner tiers. One of the most consistent trends in the decade before the recession was the steady increase in the number of firms that formed at least one tier of nonequity partners. Once the economy declined, some abandoned their multitier structures, while others continued to create at least one tier. As a result, the nonequity trend leveled out for a while. Now it appears the trend has regained momentum—but with a different approach in some firms. Previously one of the main categories of nonequity partner was “permanent” status. Recently, some firms have eliminated the permanent category from their structures. So in these firms, nonequity status is simply an additional step before an associate is considered for equity partnership. Translating this into plain English, it really means nonequity partners must be able to develop new business, or at least maintain and expand their own books of business, or they won’t become equity partners. In a growing number of firms, that means they won’t remain with the firm, either.
This leaves 997 trends to discuss. I’ll continue working on them in my next report.