Law Practice: We’ve heard much about the Great Resignation lately; what is it and has it impacted your law firm?
Heffington: I believe the title itself is a bit misleading, since I perceive the issue to be more complex than employees simply resigning and leaving a void within the workforce. For my firm, the more relevant issues are 1) finding quality employees, and 2) retaining current staff. Within the last year, we lost only one employee; however, finding a suitable replacement proved difficult since there are many alternatives for an individual seeking employment.
Kaplan: The Great Resignation is a phenomenon I have observed among older attorneys. As the pandemic hit and courts closed, many more seasoned attorneys experienced a slowdown in business. Working from home led to the closing of brick-and-mortar offices and gave many attorneys a preview of retirement. Some attorneys enjoyed the change of pace and have decided not to come back to work, or, in some cases, full-time work.
Being a small firm, our practice was not hit with any resignations. As a white-collar criminal defense firm, we remained busy, and while we were not going to court as before, courts remained active through remote appearances, keeping our firm active.
Rockoff: Based on some recent research, I believe the Great Resignation is primarily the Great Early Retirement. This has led to many more open jobs, so those who are not happy in their current jobs have a lot more options. As a law firm of about 23 lawyers, and about the same number of nonlawyers, we haven’t been negatively impacted. We had one attorney, who many believed would never retire, decide to take significantly reduced hours. I believe being home during the beginning of the pandemic likely led him to realize that he was ready for such an arrangement. We also have had a couple of clearly unhappy staff members find other employment. This was a win-win for the firm.
Tamminga: The pandemic simply gave the tree a good ole shaking. Many approaching retirement, deeply unhappy or already contemplating change have used the disruption to accelerate their plans. Certainly, there have been a record number of retirements in 2021 at my firm.
For those not already contemplating a departure, however, the primary impact of COVID has been to make many in the law business much busier than anyone could have predicted. Instead of a Great Resignation, we find ourselves in the middle of fierce recruitment battles, with rampant poaching from other firms— and even across international boundaries—and signing bonus craziness becoming the norm.
Law Practice: What has been the driving force behind the Great Resignation? Has it been burnout, generational expectations, opportunities resulting from our adaption to the pandemic or other factors?
Heffington: If I had to label one factor as the driving force, I would say it is burnout. As we all know, the legal profession is a high-stress, time-consuming— and sometimes life-consuming—field. Unfortunately, I think pre-pandemic the majority of us were on a giant hamster wheel, busily working on one major case after another, rarely looking up to evaluate our work/life balance. The pandemic forced a halt to the hamster wheel or, at the very least, a significant slowdown.
Kaplan: I believe the driving force was the preview of retirement. Many attorneys thought about retirement pre-pandemic but never pulled the trigger. This quiet time provided an opportunity to test drive life without early court and a day full of in-person client meetings.
Tamminga: I doubt the Great Resignation is actually a thing, at least in law land. Other than a wave of early retirements, people aren’t leaving or dropping out or pursuing alternatives any more than they always have. What resignations we are seeing are often lateral moves to competitors, based on extravagant inducements and lifestyle accommodation. Law firms are exceedingly anxious to keep their people and are willing to go to unprecedented lengths to keep them.
The early retirement phenomenon may have something to do with the more relaxed pace that was one of the weird side effects of working from home. I hasten to add that this was likely the case only for empty-nester senior practitioners. That said, a surprising number of older professionals observe that it was like being given a risk-free practice round at retirement, or semi-retirement. In any event, those who thought retirement was looming somewhere out there in the middle distance used the pandemic as a reason to accelerate those plans and decide on a hard stop now rather than re-enter the fray.
Law Practice: Do you think the culture of your firm had anything to do with the effects your firm experienced when it comes to employee turnover during the past year?
Heffington: The culture of my firm most definitely had a positive impact, and it prevented significant turnover. Certainly there are drawbacks to a firm with only three attorneys, but there are also notable advantages. We had the luxury of not being forced to institute a mandatory come-to-the-office or work-from-home policy. With 14 individuals (attorneys and staff), we had the ability to be flexible and take the situation day by day, and sometimes even hour by hour. We allowed our staff to work from home when they felt it was necessary, particularly during the remote learning days for local students.
Our community played a major role in our limited loss of employees. Columbia, Tennessee, is a midsize city that has a walkable, family-oriented downtown district occupied by the courthouse and attorneys’ offices. Most of our staff members live within 15 to 20 minutes of the office, fostering further flexibility. In the early days of the pandemic, when contagiousness was still unknown, we staggered time in the office. Our employees know we want the best for them and that we are willing to meet their needs as best we can, while still meeting the demands of running a law firm. In turn, they are loyal to our firm.
Kaplan: We are a small firm with five attorneys, so we were nimble and able to pivot when the lockdown started. We were lucky to have strong IT support, so within a week of the lockdown we were able to meet regularly on Zoom and keep working to support our clients. We have always had strong communication at our firm, and that helped tremendously as we adapted to the new normal.
Rockoff: Absolutely. The culture of our firm prior to the pandemic emphasized that we exist to serve—not just our clients, but also our community and one another. In every decision we make, the spirit of service is a touchstone. Our response to the pandemic, how we treated each other, our clients and our community was all about service. This spirit of service is the primary reason we have not experienced negative employee turnover. It is not only about how we treat each other, but the importance we place on each employee’s contribution to the service we provide to our clients and our community. If employees believe they are part of something bigger, they are more likely to stay.
Law Practice: Do you think that the way employees in your firm were treated at the onset of the pandemic had any impact on the extent to which your firm was affected by resignations of late?
Heffington: We are so fortunate to have an outstanding work environment that fosters trust, flexibility and a team approach. With those metrics already in place at the onset of the pandemic, we were able to roll with changes and uncertainty that were commonplace at that time. Very quickly, we learned to operate within a framework of heightened flexibility, which allowed our staff to feel secure in their jobs and as safe as possible regarding their health. Our approach to the challenge seemed to encourage our employees to feel in control of their situation, which in turn mitigated the loss of staff.
Kaplan: My partner Nina Marino and I made a commitment to do everything we could to not cut employee pay during the lockdown. While there were some tight moments, I believe our attorneys and staff appreciated our efforts to support them during this difficult time, and they, in turn, truly supported us.
Rockoff: Yes. When the pandemic hit, we closed the building, sent everyone home, made sure people had the technology they needed and paid everyone regardless of how much work they had to do. The partners took a 33 percent pay cut to be sure we would have the funds to pay everyone else. One member of our management committee came into the building daily with a couple of people from our administrative team to tackle mail, filings, etc. We all pitched in to make sure the work got done and everyone was kept safe. When we decided to allow employees back in the building, everyone was respectful, wore their masks, and we are 100 percent vaccinated without a mandate. Thankfully, the pay cut we took last year turned out not to be necessary.
Tamminga: My firm, Gowling WLG, did what I, as a partner, hoped it would do and immediately signaled that we were all in this together—that no one, not a soul, would be out of a job for so long as the emergency lasted. That has been the case throughout, even for those whose services were clearly not needed for the past 21 months, such as catering, facilities or meetings. This was just the right thing to do.
There was never a single thought of “dropping ballast,” put coldly. Law firms are demanding employers, but if core values of fairness and support are built into the culture, people will put up with minor frustrations in favor of the greater comfort that comes from knowing the organization has their back when things turn truly pear-shaped.
Law Practice: How do you balance the traditional mentorship role model within your firm with the demand for flexibility and remote engagement to retain and develop talent within the firm?
Rockoff: Our attorneys have all elected to come back into the office on a regular basis. We are not requiring that they be in the office any particular amount of time. We are all so accustomed now to Zoom, FaceTime, Teams and other types of meetings that mentorship can still occur naturally in ways in which each party is comfortable. Just as we meet our clients based on their comfort level, our mentors and mentees meet the same way. For example, one attorney began walking outside with her mentee as a way to connect in an environment where everyone was comfortable.
Tamminga: The only logical, sound strategy in the face of what we’ve been going through is to make newcomers to the firm, whether freshly qualified associates or lateral hires, feel welcome, included and valuable as quickly as possible. This is hard to do when most people are in the office only intermittently, if at all.
To that end, a great deal of work goes into work allocation systems to ensure that availability and proximity biases don’t interfere with the optimal training and work experience. Emerging experience, expertise and talent databases allow newcomers to quickly find the colleagues and experts they need to get work done.
Together, these tools do more to support and define culture systematically than the traditional mentor model.
Law Practice: Has the Great Resignation impacted the way your firm evaluates and recruits talent? How?
Heffington: Most people have heard the phrase “You don’t know what you have until it is gone.” I think we can now modify it slightly to “You don’t know what you have until you’re in the middle of a pandemic.” Our office truly operates as a family unit—another one of the advantages of a small firm. Pre-pandemic, we knew we had a good thing going but probably took it for granted to a certain degree. Based on the challenges over the last year and a half, we are now acutely aware of the qualities we are looking for in future employees.
Over the past summer, we hired a rising 3L as an intern. We identified qualities in him that fit into our overall approach to practicing law and running a business. He is not only intelligent, thorough, hardworking and proficient at legal research, but also personable, self-motivated, funny and a bit sarcastic, which fits into the fabric of our work family extremely well. Pre-pandemic, we probably would have focused more on his GPA and overall standing in class, which are important qualities, but they are not singular representatives of a good associate/employee.
Rockoff: It emphasized to us how important it is that we hire people who believe in our culture of service.
Law Practice: How will the current realities such as the pandemic, remote working and a change in general attitudes about work/life balance affect the way your law firm strategically plans in the future?
Kaplan: Technology has jumped to the forefront of our long-term planning. The options as to where and how our attorneys complete projects have increased. We are well-aware attorneys have choices as to where they are going to work, and work/life balance is now normal to the conversation when interviewing prospective attorneys. We need to be open to ideas that five years ago might have seemed crazy or unachievable. We like to think outside the box in our practice of law, and now we must do so in our management of our firm.
Rockoff: We have always valued lifestyle at our firm. Our billable hour expectations are significantly lower than most law firms. Our biggest challenge during the pandemic has been getting all of the work done and not losing our work/life balance. We actively hired during the pandemic in an effort to keep our billable hours manageable and our lifestyle culture.
Tamminga: Radically. At least I hope so. I feel strongly that we should abandon all strategic planning currently in place. We are passing through an event horizon and entering a world that renders plans made prior to today worthless. Any strategic plan that has any hope of providing guidance to the business in this exponential age of ours has to be much more malleable and adaptable than the rigid three- and four-year plans of the past. Strategic planning has to be ongoing, current and tuned to rapidly changing circumstances.
While lifestyle considerations and a greater willingness to provide alternatives to full-time office presence will factor into post-COVID planning, it’s clear that all aspects of the law business are implicated. Exponential change and the extremely rapid move to online everything will put the focus on data analytics and new approaches to pricing our services and products, project management and investment in IT. In short, law firms will have to learn how to become real businesses, with real strategic business planning, in a hurry.
Law Practice: Given that the pandemic afforded new means of practice and support such as the ability to work from home, greater flexibility, a better work/life balance — which may have been unheard pre-pandemic — do you think that a law firm going back to “normal” is counter to keeping and retaining the best talent?
Heffington: Without a doubt, I am convinced that going back to business as usual is a death sentence for law firms. When we go through a challenge in life, it should be our goal to learn from the experience and adjust our sails. Having been a nurse, I commonly make comparisons between the medical world and the legal world, and undoubtedly the legal profession has been antiquated in certain aspects. The pandemic thrust change on a very stubborn profession and embracing that change will ensure we retain our brightest employees. As the saying goes, “Change is inevitable,” but it is how we handle the change that determines our success.
Kaplan: We must face the truth that there is a new normal. Our attorneys’ productivity actually increased during the pandemic despite not being together every day in person. We recognize that our team is happier and therefore more productive with some flexibility. If we want to retain the top talent, we have to listen to their likes and dislikes and implement policies and working conditions that incorporate as much as is practical.
Rockoff: We allowed quite a bit of flexibility for attorneys prior to the pandemic. But now, I think we are all more comfortable working on projects where one member of the team may be out of the office. We also have built in more flexibility for staff to work from home. Flexibility, adaptability and creative problem solving have always been required of lawyers— now more than ever, they are also required for law firm management to keep the best people in the firm.
Tamminga: Well, we’re not going back to normal; it’s as simple as that. Nobody knows what normal even is yet, but it certainly won’t be business as we knew it in February 2020. Too much has gone down. Many law firms have had their two best years ever in the midst of a global catastrophe and have done so by instantly availing themselves of new technologies that had reached general viability only in the past five years. Those lessons will not—or put more strongly, cannot—be unlearned. Law firms may be conservative, but when they need to, they can be plenty nimble.
Though many pine for a return to the “before times,” law firms determined to succeed in the long run will capitalize on the gains made and lessons learned, implementing technologies that enhance a sense of presence regardless of location. It won’t be “work from home” or “return to office,” it will be “work from anywhere.”
Culture in this hybrid context will have to be much more intentional because, as Jordan Furlong has pointed out, it can no longer be a magical emergent phenomenon that grows out of chance encounters in the office hallways. Culture will have to be about creating the foundations of a long-term relationship by ensuring that work gets allocated fairly; that diversity is actually, measurably prized; and that accommodations for special circumstances (family, health, even outside interests) are built into the fabric of the institution.