There’s a phrase that has been uttered frequently since March 2020: “Man plans; God laughs.”
It rings true for a reason. Our “best-laid plans” (to use another popular saying of the COVID-19 era) give way to all sorts of calamities, surprises and unanticipated factors.
But there’s an implied misconception here: that the cosmic uncertainty exemplified by pandemic and war causes us to give up on making plans at all. No, the legal profession hasn’t collectively decided to have another slice of pie because, oh hell, why not.
If anything, these times have brought the importance of planning, and examining one’s plans, to the forefront. We’ve benefited from the adaptability we’ve had to learn. Successful improvisation makes anything seem possible. Many feel like they’re no longer running with ankle weights.
“The Great Reevaluation” is another phrase. It’s one that we here cannot claim to have coined. But isn’t it what came before “The Great Resignation”?
This topic hits close to home. Since our last column, my longtime colleague on The Mid-Market Report, Lizzy McLellan Ravitch, moved to a new gig: investigative reporter for Billy Penn, a nonprofit news organization that’s part of Philadelphia’s public media affiliate. It’s a totally different type of opportunity in community journalism. We miss the hell out of Lizzy, but we know she’ll do great things.
In the legal industry, these opportunities to try something different or to try a new environment abound.
One recent example: bankruptcy lawyer John Weiss’ decision to leave Am Law 100 firm Alston & Bird for midsize firm Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, where he’ll be tasked with building a practice more or less from scratch—but where he also can, in his words, pursue “a real opportunity for a different product offering than what Big Law offers.”
For Weiss, “at this stage of my career, it just became a very exciting idea to do something completely different.”
In another recent move I had the opportunity to cover, Stephen Katz, longtime corporate practice chair at Peckar & Abramson, moved over to fellow midsize firm Connell Foley.
There were plenty of business-centric reasons for the move, which Katz discussed at length, including the new firm’s broader spectrum of services. On a personal level, Katz acknowledged it was “now or never” for a move like this one. Our conversation took a bit of a detour into what’s happening in the workforce.
“I have friends and clients who are reevaluating,” Katz told me, adding that, following the onset of the pandemic, “we were left questioning everything.”
“People who may be saying, ‘OK, I’ll stick it out another year or two,’” are rethinking that willingness to hold on a bit longer in the name of continuity, endurance, loyalty, legacy—whatever the motivators may be. “All that uncertainty, in law and in all other industries, got people thinking,” Katz said.
“Maybe my midlife crisis came a little late,” he joked, before correcting himself. “Not even a crisis, but the time was right.”
For many, the time is right. We spend a lot of time talking about the compensation war, but many things beyond money fuel mobility. We talk a lot about flexibility, but there’s more to this reevaluation than any individual lawyer’s quest for the ideal working environment. Like Weiss and Katz, lawyers have pointed to as many—maybe more—professional reasons for the moves they are making.
As one colleague of mine put it: “People want to work at the best place for people who do what they do.”
Good for them. But what if you’re running a law firm? The first step seems to be getting a strong grasp on what you’re offering.
A recent edition of our Southeast Takeaways newsletter sized up this idea. Though the piece was focused on lawyer compensation, Ed Christian, CEO and managing partner of Burr & Forman, pointed to the importance of “being able to sort of lock down the attractive aspects of your firm that are not truly money related, being able to sell those and talking about what differentiates you from other firms on what makes your firm attractive.”
Katz, now of Connell Foley, told me how he’d come to view himself as a “concierge attorney” for clients seeking services—many of them personal services, such as wills—beyond what he himself could offer. Indeed, trusted adviser status is something many attorneys aspire to or happen into, often by virtue of their client base. Does your firm nurture the concierge attorney? Could it? If not, could it mean that attorneys fitting that profile are looking to go elsewhere? Is that risk necessary or worthwhile?
It seems what midsize (and other) firms must then realize is that what they can reasonably offer might not be what every existing lawyer or potential hiring candidate seeks. Collegiality and culture might not be enough for that ambitious lawyer looking to make partner at an early age, if your firm’s well-entrenched leadership ranks don’t offer sufficient opportunity in that regard.
Attorneys looking for influence—such as practice leadership positions, or simply access to firm executives or committees—might feel penned in at your firm. Lawyers such as Weiss go to such firms as Pashman Stein because they are seeking more control over their own rates, but maybe your firm’s business model or strategy demands steadily increasing rates. And yes, if you’re requiring lawyers to be in the office full time in 2022, you’re probably going to lose people. You probably already have. But if your practice demands it, make it part of your identity and stand by it.
Once you’ve identified what your firm offers its attorney talent—whether it’s more flexibility in career paths, or the opportunity to make gobs of money, or a longer list of departments for referring work internally—the next step seems to be communicating all of that to your talent. Accentuate and expand where you can. Message it to the talent you hope to keep and the talent you hope to get. How? That’s a question for another column—or, better yet, a marketer or placement professional.
Much lay dormant before March 2020 that has since been awakened. The Great Reevaluation is a process, not a moment. It’s ongoing. Continue to ask questions regularly, define what your firm does and what it offers. And recognize that, for at least a few lawyers, what’s offered won’t be right.
In the Great Reevaluation, we’re all looking at our options—whether it’s a career move, or a second slice of pie.
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