Business of Law

Much Ado About Nothing? When it comes to lawyers, is the 'Great Resignation' really just the 'Great Reshuffle'?

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Heather Meeker sipped on a glass of Champagne as she deleted all her firm’s required apps from her electronic devices.

After 25 years as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer at a series of BigLaw firms in Silicon Valley, including the last seven-plus as a partner at O’Melveny & Myers, Meeker says she was jolted out of her rut by the pandemic. She’s now joined the “Great Resignation,” leaving O’Melveny for a fresh job at a virtual four-lawyer shop while pursuing new horizons by co-founding an early-stage venture capital fund. She cites the newfound pleasures of working from home, an impatience with BigLaw bureaucracy and a pandemic-inspired desire to test her entrepreneurial talents.

“I’m not just leaving BigLaw, I’m rearranging the mix,” Meeker says. “The cataclysm of COVID focuses you on what’s important in life. At a big firm, it’s easy to just keep your head down and work. Many lawyers are making changes now, leaving large organizations to work for themselves. What most want is more flexibility. Big firms are very traditional. They find it hard to make changes.”

It appears that Meeker’s daily duties and physical workspace have not altered much. “I’m sitting at the same desk in my home office and doing the same technonerd things,” she says of wielding her expertise to advise clients on software copyright and patent issues, open source licensing strategies and intellectual property’s role in investments. The friendly parting she arranged with O’Melveny now has her referring business to her former colleagues. “But I’m doing it without the big firm annoyances of endless Zoom meetings and all that cumbersome proprietary software.”

But her quality of life has improved. As she recounted in a January 2022 column titled “How I Joined the Great Resignation” for the Daily Journal, she did not miss the commute, the unnecessary business trips and all that office face time. Then she listed the pluses that remote work enabled: “I finally got enough sleep. … I ate dinner every day with my husband. I took walks during the day.”

BigLaw partners and associates joining the Great Resignation are not so much rejecting the legal industry as they are embracing new possibilities and bidding for greener pastures. Maybe the term should instead be referred to as the “Great Reshuffling,” as lawyers are voting with their feet against job discontent and optimistically seeking new paths.

Those interviewed for this story say that despite the increased job-switching, most lawyers remain within the profession.

In 2018, 5,095 partners and counsel at the Top 200 U.S. firms exited; in 2021, that group’s departures numbered 5,959—an increase of 17%, according to data from Leopard Solutions, a New York City-based business intelligence firm.

The figures were up dramatically for associates. In 2018, 9,258 left. Last year, those exiting numbered 13,215—a 43% jump during a time when the overall number of associates actually fell from 47,450 at the end of 2018 to 43,697 at the start of 2021 due to a decline in 2020 in entry-level hiring.

“Those who have hit the career milestone of partnership are more reluctant to give it up,” says Phil Flora, a Leopard Solutions vice president. “Associates are much more likely to look for greater advantage at other firms.” The numbers, he adds, reflect a combination of skyrocketing staffing turnover and the way law firms are scrambling to find people to service ever-busier clients.

Moving around

Partners move less in part because their current firms pay them to stay put, says Robin Wexler, the national legal partner practice group leader at the executive recruitment search firm Lucas Group.

She adds that when a partner ponders a move, “it’s commonplace for firms to come back with tremendous counteroffers. So I encourage them to look beyond that at the bigger picture of possible career development. Why wasn’t your value recognized during normal times?”

For associates, it’s a “Great Churn,” says Nicole Kennedy, Lucas Group’s national legal associate practice group leader. “COVID and the remote environment have turned everything on its head. It’s led to feelings of disconnection for new hires and laterals. It’s impacted the relationship dynamic in big firms. If you don’t have a champion in your firm, you don’t feel you’ll develop long-term. There’s no longer a go-to person with whom you’ve established a rapport the way you did in the pre-COVID environment.”

Where do the exiting lawyers land? Leopard’s research shows that of all attorneys who left a top 200 firm last year:

  • 34% ended up at another top 200 firm.
  • 16% went to corporate law departments.
  • 11% went to firms outside the top 200.
  • 4% went to work for the government.
  • 1% went into private practice.
  • 1% went into academia.
  • 1% went to nonprofits.
  • 1% retired.

The destinations of the other 31% are unknown.

New hires often sense dispiriting isolation these days. “One woman who has never set foot in her new office told me she feels all she’s there to do is turn paper,” Kennedy says. “Deal flows are exploding, so her assigned partners are too slammed to find time for those little extras that are part of building a team: lunches, group meetings, one-on-one chats. She’s shopping around and has plenty of options.”

A rupture in the bonds of loyalty that law firms have long sought to forge with their new hires makes retention iffy.

Kennedy says firms are aware of this, and some are starting to aid overworked recruiters by creating the position of lateral integration specialist to counsel incoming juniors on how to find satisfaction as they blend into their new workplace.

Adding to the revolving door: Firms are much more actively seeking to poach associates from rivals by dangling bonuses.

“They’re offering ginormous sign-ons,” Kennedy says. Those can keep new hires in place for a time, due to clawback provisions that mandate a one-year stay. “So people will calendar the exact day when they’re free again to move.”

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