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A Changing Dynamic

Like all businesses, law firms have had to make adjustments in the wake of the pandemic, which has created both new opportunities and new challenges. Overall, firms have seen obvious changes in where people work and how. But there also may be new dynamics when it comes to recruiting and from where firms can attract new business.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

 

They call it the ‘Zoom room.’ And for obvious reasons.

It’s the office of a retired partner with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin that’s been converted into a small conference room equipped with a 60-inch screen for, or mostly for, Zoom meetings with clients that involve at least a few of the firm’s attorneys.

“If we have several of us who want to meet with a client or a couple of clients, we can have a multi-person meeting and have a few people in the room,” said Tim Mulhern, the firm’s managing partner, who said that, prior to the pandemic, there was obviously no need for a Zoom room. And the creation of one is just one of the many adjustments — that’s a word he and others we spoke with would use early and often — that law firms have made over the past 20 or so months. And some of them are more permanent in nature than temporary.

That can likely be said of the receptionist at Shatz — or the lack thereof, to be more precise. No one sits at that desk any longer, and, in fact, the door that leads to the reception area is now locked; a sign taped to it provides a number to call for people with inquiries.

The biggest change, though, is the number of lawyers to be found on the other side of the door — roughly half that from the days before the pandemic.

The rest are working remotely all or most of the time, something that took some getting used to — lawyers, especially, like the office setting, said Mulhern — but most have gotten over that hump.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now. We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

Ken Albano, managing partner at Springfield-based Bacon Wilson, agreed. He noted that it’s not uncommon to check his phone in the morning and hear from one or more of the firm’s attorneys letting him know they will be working remotely that day. As other firms have, Bacon Wilson has adjusted — there’s that word again — and become more flexible out of necessity, he said, adding quickly that the firm wants its lawyers and paralegals in the office at least some of the time.

“I’m old school,” he said. “I like the idea of being with a young lawyer or a young paralegal who needs mentoring and advice and has questions. It’s better for me to meet with them one-on-one, in person, with a mask on, as opposed to doing it via Zoom.”

In the grander scheme of things, though, where lawyers work, and whether there’s a receptionist or not, may well turn out to be some of the less significant adjustments, or changes, to result from the pandemic. The larger ones could involve recruiting young lawyers and the potential to add business as a result of the changing landscape.

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to hiring lawyers and paralegals.

Starting with the latter, Seth Stratton, managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, summed things up effectively and succinctly when he said “we sell time.” And with some of the changes brought about by the pandemic — including less time commuting to work and less time traveling to meet clients — there is, in theory, at least, more time to sell.

Also, now that clients of all kinds, but especially business clients, have become accustomed to meeting with clients via Zoom and the telephone, there is potential to have such sessions with law firms based in the 413, which charge, on average, anywhere from one-half to two-thirds what lawyers in Boston and New York charge, and less than those in Hartford as well.

“COVID has resulted in more efficiencies, and, generally, efficiencies mean things take less time, and we sell time, so that means we’re selling less per client,” Stratton explained. “But it allows us to potentially work with more clients and work with clients who are more distant — we can expand the footprint of who we’re comfortable working with and who’s comfortable working with us.”

As for recruiting … the pandemic brings both opportunity and challenge, said Betsey Quick, executive director of Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson. She noted, as others have over the years, that it is difficult to recruit young lawyers to Western Mass. law firms, and it often takes a family connection to do so. With the pandemic and the ability to work remotely, there is now the possibility of recruiting lawyers not to Western Mass., necessarily, but to firms based here — and the young lawyers can live where they want.

But — and this is a significant ‘but’ — young lawyers who might want to come to Western Mass. because of the quality of life and comparatively low cost of living can now come here, but not necessarily to work for a firm based here — again, because of the options now available to them.

“Remote working options can help and hurt recruiting efforts,” Quick said. “We are now hearing from attorneys with great résumés who prefer more of a remote schedule. It has opened the doors to new prospects. The concept of urban flight is real, and professionals are considering their options. On the other hand, with remote work, attorneys who once flocked to big-city firms may now have the option to remain at that firm, with the big city salary, and relocated to a rural area.”

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics presented by the pandemic could provide area firms with more opportunities to secure work from clients based outside the 413.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest looks at all of the various ways the pandemic has brought change to a sector that hasn’t seen very much of it over the past several decades.

 

Case in Point

Mulhern remembers when, at the height of the pandemic in mid-2020, he used to carry a small, foldable table in his car. It was for what came to be known as ‘driveway signings,’ among other names — the inking of documents in outdoor settings, including driveways, but also parking lots and parking garages, where each party would bring their own pen and bottle of hand sanitizer.

Those days seem like a long time ago, and in many respects they are, he said, adding that a large degree of normalcy has returned to the practice of law, although things are, in many ways, not at all like they were in February 2020.

As an example, Albano noted the recent end to Springfield’s mask mandate. While the city took that course, Bacon Wilson has decided to still require masks within its offices, a difference of opinion that has resulted in some confusion and even some harsh words for the receptionist from visitors not inclined to mask up.

Overall, changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

Changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

“You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

Going back to that word used earlier, firms have been adjusting to a changed world, and the adjustment process is ongoing, especially when it comes to where and how people work.

At Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, as noted, maybe half the lawyers continue to work remotely, said Mulhern, adding that the firm has not rushed anyone back, and it won’t, at least for the foreseeable future, in large part because the current work policies, if they can be called that, are working.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

And there are variations on the theme, he said, noting that some lawyers work a portion of their day at the office and the rest at home.

At other firms, most if not all lawyers are back in the office. That’s certainly the case at Bulkley Richardson, which implemented a vaccine policy on Oct. 1, said Quick, noting that the firm recognizes the importance of in-person interaction with colleagues and the need for human connection.

That said, Bulkley Richardson and other firms have learned that remote working can and does work, and there is certainly room for — and, even more importantly, a need for — flexibility.

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law”

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law” because of COVID, and she believes there are many positives amid a host of disruptions.

“The transition to remote work was unprecedented, but what we learned by the unexpected lockdown was that flexibility is a viable option,” Quick said. “We have always offered attorneys some degree of flexibility and have worked with them to find an agreeable working model; until the pandemic, most attorneys worked traditional hours within a traditional office setting. But now, with the remote working more acceptable, and sometimes necessary, we have seen no change in productivity or efficiency doing work.”

Stratton agreed, noting that his firm, like most, had a degree of flexibility when it came to working remotely and allowed lawyers to do so; most didn’t, except when they had to (during snowstorms or when they were home sick), because they preferred to be in the office. Now that they’re used to it, and like it, more are taking advantage of the flexibility they have.

Indeed, before COVID, perhaps 10% to 15% of work was done remotely, and now the number is perhaps 25%, said Stratton, adding that this represents a new normal.

And the new ways of doing things have produced greater efficiency, he added, a dynamic that creates the potential for more billable hours in a business that, as he said, sells time.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and the resulting changes in how lawyers interact with clients present new opportunities for firms in the 413 to do business with those well outside it, Stratton noted.

Before, to get such business, firms would need a physical office in Worcester or Boston. Now, for many types of business law, where personal interaction is less necessary, services could be secured from lawyers in this market at rates far below those charged in those larger markets.

“With the increased use of remote communication and remote meetings, you can more easily tap those markets,” he said, adding that the firm is starting to market itself to such clients through professional networking.

 

Moving Target

Beyond where and how people work, the pandemic may have changed another important dynamic for local firms — the all-important work to attract and retain young talent.

As noted, it has long been a challenge to bring young lawyers to this market unless there is a connection, said Stratton, who offered himself as an example. He and his wife are both from this area, and it was a desire to return here (especially on his wife’s part) after some time spent in Boston that eventually brought him back to the 413.

Summing up the landscape as it has existed for some time, Stratton said the region has long faced what he called “depth of bench” challenges.

Elaborating, he said this is a “top-heavy” market when it comes to lawyers, with many of the leading players in their 60s or even their 70s. There are some rising stars coming up behind them, but not as many as the firms would like.

The reasons for this are many, said those we spoke with, but largely, it comes down to the fact that this market is not the big city — which means it doesn’t have the big-city lifestyle and, more importantly to most young lawyers, it doesn’t have big-city rates for legal services — or big-city salaries.

“Like many cities, Springfield is a proud community with historic charm and continued growth.  And yet, it is not Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C., and in most circumstances, one major difference may be the salaries,” Quick said. “As a Western Mass. firm, we are able to offer a healthier work/life balance and a unique geographic landscape. The challenge is communicating this value to candidates because, if they are not familiar with the business climate in Western Mass. and all it has to offer, attracting new talent to the area can be difficult.”

Stratton agreed. “If I were to have a job posting tomorrow for a junior lawyer with one to three years of experience that fits our practice and say, ‘you come to East Longmeadow, Mass., Monday through Friday, 9 to 5,’ I would get zero applications of qualified attorneys. That might be an exaggeration, but it would be close to zero.”

Albano agreed. He said the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to attracting lawyers to Western Mass. He told BusinessWest the same thing he told Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly when it asked him the same question.

“It’s been very difficult to hire quality lawyers and paralegals during this COVID pandemic,” he explained. “The quality of résumés we’re getting in from people in Western Massachusetts and also outside the area is very weak.”

Moving forward, he noted, the number could be much higher because that lawyer doesn’t need to be in East Longmeadow, at least not Monday through Friday, 9-5, meaning recruiting might become easier — that’s might — because of the pandemic and the manner in which it has changed how people work. It’s also changed some opinions about urban living.

“Many lawyers are growing tired of the city life,” Quick noted. “They want to find a reputable firm where they can advance their career and continue to work with high-level clients. At the same time, they are realizing that work/life balance matters. Western Mass. offers the best of both worlds — a growing, professional city surrounded by the landscape of mountains, rivers, and forests right at your fingertips.”

These qualities may well help attract people to Western Mass., but will it attract them to Western Mass. firms? This is a big question moving forward as remote work becomes plausible and more attractive for those toting law degrees in their briefcases.

“You need to compete with markets that you didn’t have to compete with before for talent,” said Stratton, noting that someone drawn to the Western Mass. lifestyle, or who has family here and wants to stay here, no longer has to limit his or her options to Western Mass. firms. “As a young lawyer, you can, potentially, work out of the Boston or Washington, D.C. markets primarily, and the legal rates charged in those markets are higher, and the pay is higher.”

That’s the downside of the changing dynamic, he went on, adding that there is plenty of upside as well, including the ability to look well beyond the 25-mile circle around Springfield that most young lawyers are currently recruited from.

Much of this is speculation right now, he went on, adding that, over the next six to 12 months, firms like his will have a far better understanding of just how — and how much — the recruiting picture has changed.

Albano agreed, noting that, overall, Bacon Wilson will entertain a hybrid schedule, to one degree or another, but it would certainly prefer its lawyers and paralegals to be in this market.

“I got an e-mail with a résumé from a young man in New York, indicating that he was looking to apply for a job here, but he plans on living in Boston,” he recalled. “First of all, his résumé didn’t coincide with what we were advertising — and we’re seeing a lot of that — and, number two, there needs to be that one-on-one connection. You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, those we spoke with said the process of adjusting to everything COVID-19 has wrought is ongoing. That includes looking at the amount of space being rented and whether downsizing might be in order.

“We’re talking about what the future looks like in terms of physical space,” Mulhern said. “And that’s one of the things we’ll talk about — do we still still need all the space we have?”

The firm has more than two years left on its lease, he went on, adding that the answer to that question will come at another time. The answers to some of the questions, especially those regarding recruitment and gaining additional business, including some from other markets, might be answered much sooner.

Overall, this is a time of change and looking at things differently than they been looked at for decades.

“There has undoubtedly been a transformation of the practice of law, and we believe that there are many positives amid all of the disruption,” said Quick, referring to those at Bulkely Richardson while also speaking effectively for all those we spoke with. “The pandemic taught us many things, including how to work more efficiently, utilize available resources, and communicate better to keep teams connected. I anticipate many changes will remain with us in a post-pandemic world.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Law

Time to Make a Strong Case

Ken Albano, managing partner at Bacon Wilson.

For years now, it’s been the common refrain among those charged with hiring at companies across a number of industry sectors: good help is hard — or at least harder — to find and retain.

Increasingly, words to that effect are being heard in a sector where they’ve traditionally not been heard as much — the legal community.

Indeed, representatives of several area firms told BusinessWest that, while they can still recruit and hire talent — for the most part — it’s a more challenging assignment in many cases and often takes longer.

“It’s certainly more challenging now than it has been in the past,” said John Gannon, a partner and employment-law specialist at Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, who penned an article for this issue on the many questions employers have about dealing with coronavirus. “But this is not unique to law firms — this is economy-wide, nationwide; it’s just hard to find people because everyone’s working.”

Indeed, this is, by and large, a buyer’s, or job seeker’s, market. Given these conditions, where law firms — like other employers in virtually every sector — are upping the ante with wages and benefits, it becomes more difficult for Springfield-area firms to compete. It’s a completely different playing field than the one that existed during and just after the Great Recession, he went on, when jobs were scarce and law firms saturated with lawyers were very much in the driver’s seat.

Ken Albano, managing partner at Bacon Wilson, which is based in Springfield and also has offices in Northampton and Westfield, agreed.

“It’s certainly more challenging now than it has been in the past. But this is not unique to law firms — this is economy-wide, nationwide; it’s just hard to find people because everyone’s working.”

“It’s challenging, but then it’s always been somewhat challenging in this market,” he told BusinessWest, adding that many factors are contributing to the current environment, including everything from the smaller classes at many law schools, which resulted from that depressed job market after the Great Recession, among other factors, to the lower pay scales in the 413 compared to markets like Boston, New York, and even Hartford (more on that later), to what appears to be fewer people moving into certain areas of the law.

To emphasize that last point, he reached for the Feb. 24 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, specifically the ‘Employment’ page. Using a blue sharpie, he had circled the ads seeking litigators with varying levels of experience — and there were quite a few of them.

John Gannon says recruiting lawyers to this market has always been somewhat challenging, and with the current job climate, it is even more so.

‘Associate — Civil Litigation’ read one ad, while another was headlined ‘Senior Litigation Associate,’ and several read simply ‘Litigation Associate.’ One, for a firm in Charlestown, was more specific: ‘Trusts & Estates & Probate Litigation Associate — Must Love Dogs.’

Albano’s interest in those ads was understandable.

“Our firm’s biggest frustration has been in that one particular practice area, litigation,” he said, noting that the firm lost two of its best litigators, Bob Murphy and Kevin Maltby, to the bench in recent years, and has struggled to fill the void. “And I’m not sure why that is; maybe it’s the anxiety, maybe people don’t like to speak in public. It’s not just us — people are struggling to find people who want to go to court.”

Putting aside the need for litigators, and even litigators who love dogs, hiring has, overall, become more challenging for law firms in Greater Springfield, and this is prompting a response similar to that given by those in other sectors. Specifically, it’s one focused on being imaginative and resourceful, and employing tactics designed to familiarize law-school students with opportunities in this area and also sell this region both to those just starting their careers and those looking at a lateral move.

“We made a decision at a partners’ retreat to put a very targeted and strategic approach to hiring in place,” said Betsey Quick, executive director at Bulkley Richardson, which has offices in Springfield and Hadley, adding that part of this strategy is to focus primarily on area law schools, bring in summer associates and interns, and make them familiar with the firm and the region. And it’s a strategy that’s working.

“These are people who have a connection to the area, and our client community is out our windows,” she explained. “It’s a challenge to find someone who wants to be in the area, but there are so many law schools within 50 miles, and these students have a connection to the community, and if you have a connection to the community, you’re going to know people who need legal services.”

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest takes a look at the job market and the challenges facing firms seeking to hire. As in the courtroom itself, this assignment requires making a very strong case in order to prevail in the end.

Hire Power

As this issue went to press, those managing area law firms certainly had a lot more on their minds than finding new associates.

Indeed, as the number of coronavirus cases climbed steadily upward through last week, every firm in the region was developing contingency plans, making preparations for employees to work at home if necessary, checking corporate insurance policies to see if they’re covered (probably not) in the event that the virus seriously disrupts business, and monitoring the situation at the various law schools — some, including Western New England University, were weighing whether to shut things down for the rest of the spring, and some had already decided to do so.

“Our firm’s biggest frustration has been in that one particular practice area, litigation. And I’m not sure why that is; maybe it’s the anxiety, maybe people don’t like to speak in public. It’s not just us — people are struggling to find people who want to go to court.”

But the matter of hiring is an all-important one in this sector, and it is an issue for the long term as firms look to do everything from filling specific vacancies in departments to ensuring a healthy mix of young and mid-career lawyers to ensure sustainability and inevitable transition to a younger generation, said Quick, adding that Bulkey Richardson recognized a need for such a mix and is aggressively pursuing one.

“We have a commitment to hire, or attempt to hire, at least three young people per year,” she said, adding that this number could go higher if the firm sees good talent and doesn’t want to pass it up. “And that’s part of our strategy; if we don’t keep a targeted and strategic approach to hiring young lawyers, we’re going to be top-heavy.

“Every firm faces succession issues,” she went on. “It’s a difficult, challenging problem to face, and part of it is just bringing up young lawyers behind them, especially while they’re here to talk to them and train them and take them to meet clients; it’s important to tap that wealth of knowledge.”

But when it comes to hiring lawyers, the Springfield market has always been somewhat unique — and challenging, said those we spoke with.

Betsey Quick

Betsey Quick says Bulkley Richardson’s hiring strategy has focused on seeking out law-school students who can make local connections and, overall, a commitment to this market.

In some ways, it competes with firms in New York, Boston, Hartford, Providence, and Worcester for talent, but its wage scale has always been significantly below New York and Boston and also well below those in those other cities. So, in some respects, this region doesn’t compete against those markets.

“What comes with practicing in this market is a lower salary — it’s a fact of life,” said Albano. “And a lot of times, when we do make offers to potential new associates, we can’t compete with the Boston and Hartford markets because, on average, a new associate can make a lot more money working in those arenas than they can in Springfield or Amherst or wherever.

“We’ve lost associates in the commercial practice group to Hartford,” he went on, estimating that salaries there are perhaps 20% higher than in Springfield. “And we don’t chase people — we say, ‘this is the offer, and it’s the same offer we’ve made to people that have been in your shoes, and they’re working here now.’ That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to compete with those markets.”

Overall, the strategy has been to sell this market as a great place to live — and practice law — and to target (and in some respects recruit) candidates who want to be in this market and can commit to being here.

“We’re always looking for people who want to put down roots in Springfield,” said Gannon. “That’s a very important characteristic in all of the applicants we look at.”

Albano agreed.

“It’s tough to have someone from the Boston area come here knowing that the salary is going to be less,” he said, referring in this case to lateral hires. “But you try to impress upon these people that the cost of living is much less here. And we’ve seen both sides of the fence; we’ve had people that have worked in Boston come here and say, ‘I’d love to have a place where my dog can walk on real grass, have a fence around my yard, and not have to go to a skyscraper to go to work.’”

Quick, who handled aspects of recruiting for firms in Boston and Washington, D.C. before coming to Bulkley Richardson, acknowledged that the Springfield market is somewhat unique because of the lower salary ranges, underscoring the need, when it comes to entry-level hiring, to focus on law students who have or can create local connections.

“Anyone can look at the GPA [grade point average] and see how these students are doing on paper,” she told BusinessWest. “But are they going to fit culturally? Are they going to stay in the area? Do they have a tie to the area? Do they have a reason to want to be here? These are the things we look for.”

As for those already in the profession, in this tight job market, the task of recruiting and hiring becomes more difficult because most people are working, said Gannon, and also because the companies they’re working for want to keep them. And it’s the same in the legal profession.

“Most of the people who want to be working are working, and because unemployment rates are so low, what employers have been doing for the past couple of years is doing whatever they can to retain good people,” he said, adding that this means law-firm managers as well. “This means higher compensation, trying to pay more of the lion’s share of employee benefits, offering more generous PTO [paid time off] policies, and letting people work at home, which is a big one for many people. People are happy where they’re working — most of them, anyway.”

As for those coming right out of law school, they certainly want to be happy where they work, and, given the current climate, they have a good chance of succeeding with that mission. One strategy for Western Mass. firms — again, one that businesses in other sectors employ as well — is to familiarize young people with the region and create a familiarity and comfort level that may help sway decisions when it comes time to find a job.

“We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to hire bright, qualified individuals in law school, both at Western New England and UConn, to become law clerks at Bacon Wilson,” he said. “They work for us for a couple of years, and we can see the progress and the value, and quite often they’ll say, ‘I like this place, it’s like family; is there a job opening for us?’ And more often than not, we make one for them because we want to keep that type of talent on our page.”

Final Arguments

Looking down the road is always difficult — especially when there is an unprecedented wildcard like the coronavirus. Indeed, law firms might soon be in less of a growth mode than they currently are.

But for now, and for the foreseeable future, the outlook is promising for business — if not for recruiting lawyers to the 413, necessarily. Whether the task is filling a vacancy in the estate planning or real estate department or finding a litigator — one who loves dogs or not — the assignment is becoming increasingly challenging.

And, like employers across the broad spectrum of business, law firms must respond proactively to this changing environment.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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