Freshfields seeks to draw lawyers returning to practice amid talent war

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A nameplate of the Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in Frankfurt, Germany REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

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  • London-founded firm will first offer program in Silicon Valley
  • Directed at lawyers out of legal workforce for at least two years

(Reuters) - Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer said on Thursday it is kicking off a new program in its Silicon Valley office to hire lawyers who want to rejoin the profession, as large law firms seek new strategies to compete for limited talent.

The London-founded firm said the initiative is aimed at those who have been out of the profession for at least two years.

Law firms have been battling for attorneys broadly as demand for legal services surges. A swell in work for transactional practices like M&A, which set new records in 2021, has been one driving factor.

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Freshfields leaders said the program will allow the firm to both tap into a broader talent pool and focus on diversity and inclusion.

Although the program is partly about boosting headcount, "it's also an attempt to focus on a real shortcoming of the profession by saying, sometimes when people have been driven out of it, they can be lured back into it," said Boris Feldman, Freshfields' head of U.S. technology and a partner in the firm's Silicon Valley office.

Law firms are making efforts to improve on slow diversity gains in the profession.

The percentage of women partners at law firms increased only slightly last year, from 25.05% in 2020 to 25.92% in 2021, according to a recent annual report from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). The percentage of women partners of color only grew from 3.79% to 4.08% over the same period.

Freshfields' initiative, dubbed the "Returners" program, may attract parents who have taken time off to raise children or care for family, or lawyers who have left the practice to pursue other opportunities, said Noreen Gallagher, Freshfields' U.S. head of recruiting.

The firm isn't targeting a particular number of lawyers to hire through the new program, Feldman said.

Freshfields opened its Silicon Valley office with recruits from U.S. rivals in July 2020. The 2,800-lawyer global firm, which also has offices in New York and Washington, D.C., has seen 50% lawyer headcount growth in the U.S. since 2019, according to a firm representative.

The Silicon Valley outpost primarily handles corporate matters, including capital markets and M&A for technology companies, Feldman said. The office also does litigation work.

Firms engaged in the talent war have used compensation to recruit and retain lawyers, including rolling out rounds of bonuses and hiking base salaries. On Thursday, New York firm Milbank again raised annual salaries for associates.

Law firms have taken other approaches, too. Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan said last month that its U.S. lawyers can work remotely from anywhere in the country.

The new Freshfields program is not the first of its kind to focus on bringing lawyers back to practice after a hiatus.

Diversity Lab partners with law firms and legal departments to bring women lawyers back into the workforce through year-long fellowships.

Read more:

Freshfields to open in Silicon Valley, swipes top partners from U.S. firms

Freshfields touts U.S. inroads one year after Silicon Valley launch

The legal talent war that broke out in 2021 shows no sign of slowing down

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Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com