Westlaw News

Pioneers or 'guinea pigs,' remote associates pose test for Big Law's future

After-work drinks and in-person office retreats may soon return as COVID-19 vaccinations mount, but that’s not stopping major law firms from experimenting with permanent remote work options to attract and retain top quality associates. Many firms have said some lawyers may remain fully or partially remote after the pandemic, and some have even begun hiring associates outside their geographic footprint.

The long-term effects for these lawyers’ careers remains to be seen. Without fortuitous hallway encounters, in-person mentoring and “face time,” can remote associates create and cement ties to influential partners and clients?

Kate Reder Sheikh, a managing director at legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa’s associate practice group, said newly hired lawyers will have to “lean into potentially awkward Zoom interactions to build their networks” as remote work is set to be more common in a post-pandemic world.

“The associates working from their living rooms in Austin for a partner in L.A. are the guinea pigs – for better or for worse,” Sheikh said. “I’m not sure what the career trajectory looks like for someone who is fully remote, but the hope is that good work is good work and will be rewarded.”

Firms including DLA Piper, Goodwin Procter and Husch Blackwell have developed long-term, post-pandemic remote work options for lawyers. Goodwin has boosted associate hiring in cities where it has no physical offices. DLA Piper last year announced that lawyers and staff outside the U.S. will be able to work remotely two days a week after lockdown orders lift.

Husch Blackwell looked to remote work as a long-term strategy last July when it launched its virtual “office,” the Link, which now has 55 lawyers.

J.Y. Miller, the Link’s office managing partner, said that virtual hiring is “definitely not” going away as law firms continue to vie for talent.

“Geography is no longer the driving factor dictating the potential talent pool for firms that embrace remote work,” Miller said. “As a result, there is certainly greater competition to recruit and retain high quality associates.”

Goodwin has already hired remote associates in Boulder, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Richmond, Hartford, Charlotte, Ohio and Connecticut since the start of the pandemic. The firm said it is also searching for lawyers in Chicago, Nashville, South Carolina, Maryland and New Jersey.

The Boston-founded firm is requiring remote associates to be barred in the states where they are physically located and in the states where the closest Goodwin offices are based. The firm said it will continue reevaluating its remote-work strategy as the U.S. returns to normalcy.

Virtual summer programs and remote incoming classes in the pandemic tested law firms’ ability to effectively onboard new hires, and now they’re applying lessons from those experiences to a broader set of lawyers, including more senior lateral associates.

Heidi Goldstein Shepherd, Goodwin’s chief talent officer, said the firm has continued to organize online networking events and mixers, helping new lawyers get acclimated to the firm and meet its partners.

Although there are challenges in networking in a remote workplace, some of Goodwin’s newest associates have also been planning “safe, socially distanced” meet-ups to build a community, Shepherd said.

Husch Blackwell has used virtual coffee chats and events like murder mystery parties to help remote lawyers get to know each other.

Many acknowledge they are still weighing what approaches work best.

“There’s no question that a fully remote experience is not the same as one that affords you the opportunity to walk down the hall or see somebody in person at an event or a meeting,” said Davis Wright Tremaine’s newly-elected managing partner, Scott MacCormack. “In an ideal world, we would maintain all the best practices of our last 12 months, but return to some of the more beneficial in person events that we’ve historically done.”

Sheikh, whose recruiting clients include DLA Piper, said that like law firms, remote associates will have to be creative and accommodating in finding ways to network and navigate their careers.

“Flexibility wins out over any worries they have,” she said. (Additional reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston)