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Navigating New Frontiers: Hiring and Retention Strategies for Law Firms in a Changing World

Rebecca Spiegel

Written by

Rebecca Spiegel

|

December 4, 2023

Two women interviewing a candidate for job role

In the always-changing legal industry, law firms of all sizes face a matrix of challenges and opportunities, particularly in hiring and retention. The recent shifts in workplace dynamics, influenced by technological advancements and changing employee expectations, have brought these issues into sharp focus. 

In preparation for our annual State of Law Report release, Smokeball conducted a comprehensive survey of law firms that revealed illuminating trends: from the balancing act between remote and in-office work environments to nuanced growth strategies through hiring, particularly in specialized law areas. With a cautious eye focused on our industry's future, firms are grappling with immediate recruitment needs and the looming influence of artificial intelligence in shaping the legal workforce (something we’ll explore in great detail in a separate article). 

Here, we’ll unravel the current complexities of law firm hiring, setting the stage for a more detailed exploration in our upcoming report.

The Current State of Hiring in Law Firms

Let’s face it: today’s legal industry faces rapid changes and evolving challenges. Consequently, law firms increasingly focus on hiring as a primary lever for growth and sustainability. Our survey paints a detailed portrait of this trend, revealing that while hiring remains a universal priority, its implementation and emphasis vary significantly across firm sizes and specializations.

Larger firms, particularly those with ten or more employees, are at the forefront of this drive.

Hiring at 10+ Person Firms

Larger firms, particularly those with ten or more employees, are at the forefront of this drive, with 40% indicating a strategic leaning towards hiring to fuel their expansion in the coming year. This proactive approach to recruitment, however, has its challenges. The survey underscores a compelling dichotomy: nearly 20% of these larger firms simultaneously express no immediate plans for growth. 

Hiring by Firm Specialization

The survey offers further intriguing insights when viewed through the lens of various practice areas. Almost 60% of Insurance Defense firms, albeit from a smaller sample size, are looking toward hiring to unlock growth. Similarly, about one-third of Personal Injury and Litigation firms echo this sentiment. In contrast, family law firms present a different picture, with almost a quarter expressing no intention to expand soon. This diversity in hiring intentions across practice areas indicates the varied market conditions and client demands that shape law firms' strategic decisions.

Small Firm Growth

Interestingly, the scenario among smaller firms (those with one to two employees) presents a more conservative outlook. One in four small firms did not intend to grow in the next 12 months, suggesting cautious planning around the current operational scale. However, one in five of these smaller entities still view hiring as a potential avenue for growth, highlighting that pursuing talent remains a relevant and vital strategy for firms of all sizes.

Hiring as a Strategy for Growth

This landscape of hiring strategies paints an intricate picture. It underscores the importance of understanding the subtleties of the legal market, where growth aspirations, market dynamics, and the very nature of legal specialties interplay to shape hiring strategies. Indeed, the juxtaposition between the “hire for growth” firms and the “status quo” firms reflects a highly nuanced nature of strategic planning in the legal sector, where growth aspirations must be carefully balanced with operational realities.

Traditionally, for example, the idea of “strategic growth” ubiquitously reflected a mindset that equated “growth” with adding new employees. This approach, while straightforward, can overlook the efficiencies gained through alternative strategies like process optimization, technology integration, and specialization. These types of efficiencies can easily translate into increased profits – another key measure of growth. Yet, in many cases, law firms still default to hiring more staff to handle increased workloads or expand services, potentially leading to increased operational costs without proportionate gains in productivity or client satisfaction.

Law Firm Growth with Alternatives to Hiring

Hiring as the primary driver of growth may neglect the potential of existing staff. By focusing on recruitment as the primary growth plan, firms may miss opportunities to develop and leverage the skills of their current employees, which could lead to more sustainable and cost-effective growth. Training existing staff in new technologies, cross-disciplinary practices, or management roles could provide a more balanced growth strategy, enhancing the firm's capabilities without necessarily increasing headcount.

For example, the right legal practice management software will reduce costs, optimize efficiency, and increase billable hours without working or hiring more. The right legal software will allow your team to collaborate from anywhere (potentially reducing your overhead), updating and syncing information across emails, files, and matters. Hence, a change your team makes anywhere shows up everywhere for the related matter. Furthermore, staff can automate the creation and filing of legal documents in forms. As a result, your staff saves hours daily, allowing them to accomplish more and focus on billable work.

Additionally, automatic time-tracking that funnels directly into itemized invoices recaptures the hours your team previously glossed over when time-tracking was manual. You’re miraculously billing more without working more, and billing and payment features help you realize more revenue faster.

While staffing remains a crucial element for a law firm's growth, the need for a more holistic plan is evident. This pathway includes embracing technological innovations, focusing on staff development and specialization, and rethinking traditional legal service delivery models to meet the market's evolving demands.

Remote Work and Office Dynamics

The landscape of work environments within law firms has undergone a profound transformation – a change accelerated by a global pandemic that forced us all to acquiesce to a “new normal.” Our survey sheds light on this transition, revealing a striking diversity in the post-pandemic adoption and desirability of remote work policies.

Small Firms Prefer Remote Work

A notable split exists in work arrangements within smaller law firms (again, those with one to two employees). Approximately one-third of these firms have embraced a fully remote model, leveraging this approach's flexibility and reduced overhead costs. Conversely, an equal proportion has returned to a fully in-office environment, valuing the direct collaboration and client engagement that physical presence facilitates. This dichotomy underscores the varied approaches to balancing efficiency, client service, and employee preferences – and highlights the notion that each firm bears its unique personality.

Larger Firms Value Physical Offices

The scenario shifts as we consider slightly larger firms, particularly those with three or more employees. Here, the preference for in-office work becomes more pronounced, with around 70% of firms now entirely operating from physical office locations. This trend holds steady irrespective of the firm's size, as observed in firms with three to nine employees and those with 20 or more employees. The overwhelming inclination towards in-office work in larger firms may reflect a need for closer collaboration on complex legal matters, a desire for maintaining firm culture, or the logistical demands of managing larger teams.

The Quick Shift Back to the Office

This data displays a significant leap in the preference for in-office work in a short period. Indeed, in our survey taken in 2022, 55% of these firms reported using a hybrid model, allowing employees to split their time between working from home and working in the office. Perhaps the further we get from the pandemic, the more law firms desire to use all that valuable real estate.

Collaboration, Culture, Productivity Require More than Location

This evolution in law firm workplace dynamics concerns more than just physical spaces. It speaks volumes about the changing perceptions of work, collaboration, and productivity in the legal profession. While the pandemic necessitated an abrupt shift to remote work, its legacy in the legal sector is a newfound appreciation for flexibility and adaptability in work arrangements. Firms now face the challenge of striking the right balance. This balance accommodates the diverse preferences of their workforce while maintaining the efficiency and excellence in service that clients expect.

As law firms navigate this new terrain of remote and in-office work, they find themselves at a crossroads. Today's choices regarding workplace arrangements will impact their immediate operational efficiency and play a crucial role in shaping their attractiveness as employers in a competitive legal market. Setting up your firm with legal software that allows for the flexibility of remote work while still offering the brick-and-mortar office space to meet offers an ideal balance to current and potential new employees. 

Employee well-being and law firm culture

Our survey further revealed a unanimous and compelling focus on employee well-being. This focus transcends firm size and specialty, highlighting a universal recognition of its importance in the modern legal environment. While encouraging for law firm employees, this result isn’t particularly new. Law firms have long grappled with strategies for maintaining employee contentment and mental health – the more significant issue remains whether and to what extent they can successfully implement those strategies.

Nonetheless, our survey suggests that law firms are increasingly mindful of employee well-being's integral role in attracting and retaining talent. In an industry traditionally marked by high stakes, long hours, and intense workloads, emphasizing staff health and happiness is encouraging and necessary. Law firms are now acknowledging (and hopefully accepting) that the well-being of their team is not merely an HR concern but a strategic imperative that impacts overall firm performance and client satisfaction.

Do Younger Generations Care More About Balance & Wellbeing?

This emphasis on well-being is particularly relevant in generational shifts within the workforce. Younger lawyers entering the field with different expectations and values around work-life balance are influencing firm cultures and policies. They seek environments where their well-being is not just supported but actively promoted. This generational perspective challenges traditional norms and encourages firms to innovate regarding work arrangements, professional development, and mental health support.

Firms of all sizes are responding to this challenge. Smaller practices may offer more personalized and flexible work arrangements, while larger firms invest in comprehensive wellness programs and initiatives promoting healthy work-life integration. This evolution in firm culture benefits existing staff and can serve as a critical differentiator in the competitive legal hiring market.

The commitment to well-being has its challenges, however. Law firms must balance meeting the profession's high demands and ensuring their employees' health and happiness. This balance requires ongoing attention and adaptation as the needs and expectations of the workforce continue to evolve.

Since employee wellness is more than perks and snacks, we return to offering your team flexibility and balance. If your team can save an hour or two from a commute to the office and instead use the time for a mid-day errand, make a doctor’s appointment, or pick up their children from school. In turn, you might save on a commercial lease without compromising your firm’s profitability when you adopt the right legal practice management software to enable top-notch remote work and collaboration.

Hiring and More in 2024

As law firm leaders continue to navigate the complex tapestry of hiring and retention challenges, it becomes evident that these issues are not just operational concerns but pivotal elements that will shape the future of legal practices. From embracing the intricate dynamics of remote work to prioritizing employee well-being and adapting to the transformative influence of artificial intelligence (something we’ll discuss in a separate article), law firms are at a critical juncture. The strategies and decisions made today will not only define their current success but will also pave the way for their future in an increasingly competitive and evolving legal landscape.

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