Tag Archives: Biglaw

Adapting to Market Shifts: U.S. Law Firms in Hong Kong Rethink COLA Strategy

At least three top-tier US law firms in Hong Kong are currently planning to phase out Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) allowances within the next two years, and others are discussing doing the same. The plan is to reduce the payment by 50% in 2024 and to zero by 2025. At least one firm has announced the change internally office-wide, while two others have apparently made the decision internally but have yet to announce to their associates and counsels in Hong Kong.

Will this work? Time will tell, but history suggests these firms are facing an uphill battle to phase out COLA in Hong Kong. This isn’t the first time firms have made moves to rein in COLA. Similar plans have been deployed during previous down cycles. The problem is that unless every firm in the market ends the practice, associates will simply move from firms that reduce COLA to peer firms that maintain it.

If the current hiring downturn lasts for an additional two full years, it is conceivable that no firm would see an advantage in maintaining COLA, while others are phasing it out over two years, and using that policy to attract lateral talent. But a downturn of that length, with both soft and hard hiring freezes going on for three total years, would be unprecedented. It is more likely that the hiring market will pick up in due course at some point in 2024, reestablishing the tight supply dynamics that led firms to offer significant COLA allowances in Hong Kong in the first place. If that happens, firms will have a strong incentive to use COLA as a recruiting tool. And the firms now planning to stop paying it may find themselves reconsidering, especially when their star associates may consider moves next year as their COLA begins to be phased out.

Around ten years ago, two top US firms in Hong Kong made plans to have a three-year tail on their COLA for their US associates, whereby COLA would only be in effect for an associate’s first three years at those firms’ Hong Kong offices. However, around seven years ago, when the scheduled end to COLA for their star associates was looming, both firms quietly continued providing COLA after the three years. One of these two firms completely abandoned the idea of the three-year tail.

Unsurprisingly, firms would rather not make substantial COLA payments, especially in the current down market. There are presently very few associate openings in Biglaw offices in Asia—a major deviation from the norm. Some firms perceive this rare hiring downturn as an opportunity to implement change.

Cost of Living Adjustments: Why Biglaw Offices in Asia Pay US Associates More Than Any Other Region

The market for US-qualified Biglaw associates in Asia has long been unique. As in other regions, Biglaw firms are looking for candidates with top academic credentials and deal experience. But in addition, they look for local language skills—most commonly, fluent Mandarin. This combination of attributes shrinks the eligible candidate pool, and under normal market conditions, competition for the relatively limited number of associates who check all the boxes is intense.

That’s why firms have for many years paid so-called Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) to US-qualified associates working in Asian offices. Describing these payments as COLA is a misnomer, in that they bear no particular relation to cost of living (which is typically in Biglaw Asian markets roughly the same or slightly lower than in New York). Further, there are substantial tax windfalls for associates who land in tax havens such as Singapore and Hong Kong. This is true for both US taxpayers and non-US taxpayers, although the latter’s tax windfall is much larger than the former’s.

Instead, COLA is more accurately understood as simply an increase in base pay, rather than being tied to any cost of living adjustments or living expenses in general.

How much COLA do firms pay?

Before getting into the numbers, allow me to offer some context about my background. I recently joined Lateral Link, but my close association with Biglaw offices in Asia goes back nearly two decades, and over 500 attorney placements have been made in Asia, mostly at top-tier and second-tier US firms.

The table below presents the typical range of annual COLA (in US Dollars) in Hong Kong. To keep things simple, I have listed a Low, Medium, and High value, along with the number of firms paying at that level, among what we consider to be the top 20 US and UK law firms in Hong Kong. Please note that these COLA numbers are basic and do not include additional COLA allowances paid to associates who have children (a minority of firms in Hong Kong do this). Further, it is likely that by this time next year, there will only be one firm in the “High” range, with one of those firms considering lowering COLA a bit and one of those firms planning to phase out COLA. Outside of the handful of firms considering to phase out COLA, there has been no move to lower the COLA below the current low-end range ($60,000 to $95,000) in the Hong Kong market. This has been the range of COLA for the top 20 firms in Hong Kong for more than ten years.

LocationLow (11 Firms)Medium (6 Firms)High (3 Firms)
Hong Kong$60,000 – $70,000$75,000 to $85,000$90,000 to $95,000

One might assume that COLA is for Americans moving to Asia as expats. In the mid-2000s when the COLA system was more basic and the US law firm offices in Asia were very small, that was basically true. But the picture today is more nuanced, especially in Hong Kong—the most competitive market for associate hiring.

COLA is typically offered to attorneys that are in a “US team” (e.g., US Capital Markets, M&A, FCPA, etc.) usually (but not always) led by US-trained and qualified partners. Keep in mind that members of such teams are not necessarily Americans. Many associates are native to the region but are qualified as US lawyers. So a native Hong Kong citizen with an American JD (and with no obligation to pay US taxes) will earn COLA despite living in his or her home jurisdiction.

There are also numerous UK and Australian qualified associates at US firms in Hong Kong that work on US teams and get COLA, regardless of whether they are admitted in any US state.

Interestingly, a minority of US law firms in Hong Kong provide COLA to all or most of their solely Hong Kong-qualified associates. These lawyers are admitted to practice only in Hong Kong and typically grew up in Hong Kong, or at least have been living in Hong Kong their entire legal career. They work side-by-side with US-qualified colleagues who receive COLA, and their firms want to retain them. Accordingly, at these select offices, COLA has effectively transformed into increased base pay for all associates across the board.

Hybrid Work and Generational Divide: Navigating Differences in Modern Law Firm Practices

More than three years after COVID-19 upended where and how we work, law firm offices in some ways resemble the pre-pandemic normal. Attorneys mingle freely at in-person gatherings. Face masks and hand sanitizer have receded. But one thing is still starkly different: just how many desks are unoccupied on any given day.

Return-to-office policies are not uniform

One might have predicted that Biglaw firms would potentially use their return-to-office policies as a recruiting tactic that resulted in uniform policies given the fierce competition for talent and the ensuing (and somewhat uniform) salary increases over the past few years. The competition for talent has cooled as firms have learned to deal with COVID-19, however, and firms are moving towards bringing their attorneys back into the office on at least a hybrid basis. Superficially, it may seem that Biglaw has arrived at something approaching consensus: a survey released in January found that a third of Am Law 100 firms mandate three days per week of in-office presence, with another third encouraging three days in office. But dig a little deeper, and you find a surprising lack of convergence as firms determine what works best for their needs.

For instance, O’Melveny and Myers, like its peer firms, wants attorneys to spend more time in the office. But instead of specifying a set number of days per week, O’Melveny has announced an expectation that lawyers be present in the office for more than half the time over the course of the year. This policy emerged from a series of town halls and surveys, which delivered the clear message that flexibility was important to O’Melveny attorneys.

Even among the firms with a three-day mandate or expectation, there is no consensus on who chooses the days. Some firms have designated “anchor days,” either at an office or practice group level, where the whole team is expected to go in together. Several Morgan Lewis practice groups have recently mandated attendance on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, justifying the decision in part by noting that summer associates will be in the office on those days. Meanwhile, other firms allow lawyers to choose any three days.

And then there is the matter of compliance. Despite supposed “mandates,” noncompliance has been widespread at many firms, with limited attempts at enforcement. Many firms have preferred carrots to sticks, offering incentives such as free lunch to entice lawyers to come in. But some have been more pointed, making payout of annual bonuses contingent upon in-office attendance. Firms taking that stand include: Simpson Thacher, Sidley Austin, Davis Polk, Cahill, and Ropes & Gray.

The generational divide

So why are we seeing a lack of convergence regarding a model for the future of work at law firms? A key factor is generational differences, particularly among seasoned attorneys and junior attorneys.

Firm and practice group leaders entered the profession under very different circumstances from those of today’s junior associates. Two or three decades ago, the notion of a lawyer routinely working from home would have sounded strange. The early-career experiences of today’s senior partners were defined by long hours in the office, yes, but also by substantial in-person mentorship and training.

Given that background, it’s unsurprising that firm leadership is eager for associates to return, both for cultural and developmental reasons. It’s difficult to build culture when attorneys are remote, and effective training in a remote setting is challenging. When law firm leaders consider how they became partners—by creating strong ties with the partnership while they were associates—they struggle to conceive of how a fully remote associate could build comparable relationships and successfully navigate the path to partnership. 

Meanwhile, at the base of the pyramid are Gen Z associates who graduated from law school during the pandemic and began their law firm careers in a fully remote setting. Now that these junior lawyers are (largely) expected to be back in the office, they miss the flexibility. I sometimes receive questions about whether it’s possible to find a fully remote job at a firm. One current Biglaw junior associate recently asked me if he could go to a smaller firm with a lower hours expectation and work remotely. When I brought up the professional development benefits of in-person work for early-career attorneys, he responded that he was not sure if he wanted to practice law long-term, let alone become a law firm partner. He also mentioned that he put a premium on work-life balance and flexibility, which he thought remote work could help him achieve.

This candidate is hardly alone. A recent survey of Gen Z attorneys found that 60% would sacrifice compensation for a flexible work schedule and just 23% aspire to be a law firm partner. Gen Z also prioritizes work-life balance and flexibility.

Having been a judicial law clerk for over a year and a law firm associate for almost five years, I also know that the first five years of practice are critical for skills development, even if partnership is not necessarily in your future. I benefited tremendously from in-person mentorship and training, and I still value my mentorship and training even though I no longer practice law. When candidates ask about fully remote positions, I tell them that some midsize and boutique firms do not have a formal policy for days in the office. But I advise them to consider various types of firms with hybrid schedules, both to keep all their options open and to accelerate their development of transferable skills, for if and when they do leave the law firm track.

Ultimately, the generations are each going to have to give some ground in acknowledgment of the other’s reasonable perspectives. It remains to be seen how firms will treat hybrid or remote work to promote work-life balance and attract (and retain) talent. Whatever the equilibrium is, we haven’t reached it yet.

Navigating the Legal Industry: In-Depth Guide for Law Students and Legal Practitioners

Embarking on a legal career can be both challenging and rewarding. This comprehensive guide delves into law school, selecting a law firm, law firm life, the lateral market, and maintaining a successful career throughout. By understanding the intricacies of each aspect, you can make more informed decisions and excel in your legal profession.

Prioritize Your Law School Grades: Strong academic performance in law school is crucial for securing prestigious summer associate positions that can lead to permanent roles. Maintaining high grades throughout law school is important, as second- and third-year grades can impact lateral moves or in-house opportunities, especially for litigators. Prospective employers will request your transcript when applying for lateral attorney positions and, in some cases, even for partner candidates.

Consider a Federal Clerkship for Litigators: Aspiring litigators should consider the value of a federal clerkship, as it can enhance your legal career, particularly if you plan to work in a litigation boutique or prestigious law firm. A clerkship can be completed before starting your legal career or as a break from law firm work. For corporate associates, a clerkship may not hold the same weight and might not count towards your years of experience.

Choose a Prestigious Law Firm: The prestige of the law firm where you begin your career plays a significant role in your ability to lateral to another firm or move to a company. While smaller firms may offer better hands-on experience and training, prospective employers often prioritize candidates with experience in prestigious firms.

Select the Right Practice Area: Choosing the right practice area involves considering factors such as your personality, lifestyle, academic background, geographic preferences, and future goals. Assess whether you enjoy the substance of the work, can handle the personalities and work culture in a specific practice area, and have the necessary educational background and aptitude.

Understand Law Firm Structures: Understanding law firm structures, such as lockstep firms and two-tier partnership tracks, is essential when making career decisions. Lockstep firms may foster cooperation and have more institutional clients, while two-tier partnership tracks can offer opportunities to prove your worth as a business-building partner.

Manage Your Professional Development: Take charge of your professional development, as law firms may not always prioritize your long-term growth. Be proactive in seeking opportunities for growth and learning within the firm and externally, such as attending workshops, conferences, and networking events.

Stay Informed in Your Field: Stay updated on the latest firm and industry news to remain competitive and knowledgeable about your field. Be aware of emerging practice areas, firm financial performance, and potential opportunities for growth or lateral moves.

Prepare for the Lateral Market: The lateral market requires you to ensure your résumé, deal sheet, and firm bio are always up to date and easy to understand. Having a clear record of your experience and accomplishments can increase your chances of being contacted by recruiters and considered for lateral opportunities.

Invest Time in Interview Preparation: Invest time in preparing for interviews, researching the firm or company, and practicing common interview questions. Maintain a positive attitude during the interview process, avoiding negativity or complaints about current or former employers. Respond promptly to interview requests to convey interest and enthusiasm.

By understanding the intricacies of law school, selecting the right law firm, and navigating the legal industry, you can make more informed decisions and thrive in your legal career. Keep these tips in mind as you progress through your journey and remember to be proactive in managing your professional development.

Biglaw Associates’ Buying Power: Exploring Salary Disparities & Cost of Living in Major US Cities

Like it or not, most Biglaw associates have returned to the office, with 90% of AmLaw 100 firms now encouraging or requiring a specific number of days per week of in-person work. In an environment where “work from anywhere” is no longer viable for most lawyers, and where inflation remains high, cost of living in the market where your office is located has become more important than ever.

Cost of living and salaries are closely connected in many industries. Some legal sector jobs exhibit that correlation. Consider as an example a federal judicial clerk with one year of practice experience and bar passage (i.e., paid at the Grade 12, Step 1 of the Judicial Salary Plan scale). Because federal judicial pay rates are adjusted based on cost of living, that clerk would be paid $102,489 in San Francisco versus $89,848 in Dallas.

In Biglaw, however, cost of living is largely irrelevant to salary scales. Top firms pay associates the “New York” rate in several “major” markets, including the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Boston, and DC. From a cost of living perspective, paying New York salaries in San Francisco makes sense. In Houston or Chicago? Not so much.

It’s good to be a Houston Biglaw associate

A November 2021 NALP analysis of median private practice first-year associate salaries relative to cost of living found stark differences in associate buying power. NALP calculated that Houston and Dallas first-year associates each enjoyed more than double the buying power of their New York counterparts.

NALP’s calculations may actually understate the advantage enjoyed by Houston and Dallas associates because NALP considered only the relative cost of goods and services. But Houston and Dallas don’t just offer lower prices, they also feature no state income tax. For highly paid Biglaw associates, tax savings can make a significant difference in enabling fast wealth accumulation.

CityBuying power index (NYC = 1.0)Marginal state + local income tax rate for single first-year Biglaw associate
Houston2.50%
Dallas2.20%
Chicago1.94.95%
Atlanta1.95.75%
Los Angeles1.69.3%
Boston1.65%
Washington DC1.58.5%
San Francisco1.29.3%
NYC1.010.73%

The NALP survey looked at private practice salaries overall, rather than Biglaw salaries exclusively. If the analysis had been limited to Biglaw offices, the results would surely have been somewhat different. But the broader point is unassailable: associate salaries are poorly correlated with cost of living.

Billing rates are a key driver

If cost of living isn’t driving associate salaries, what is? In short, billing rates. Houston and Chicago may not be high-cost cities, but they have plenty of clients willing to pay firms top-dollar rates. Viewed from that lens, paying top salaries in these markets seems fair: associates are being compensated for the value they create. Over time, as clients become more accustomed to the notion of top legal talent being based in regional cities, we expect to see more lawyers being paid New York rates in cities across the country, especially with Biglaw firms expanding aggressively in secondary markets. That’s not to say that median associate salaries in secondary cities will rival the New York level. But for lawyers with top-flight credentials, geographic arbitrage may become increasingly possible and alluring.  

If you’re a New York or Bay Area associate tired of putting up with relatively low buying power, you may wish to consider a lateral move to Texas, Chicago or Atlanta. If working from the beach in Mexico is no longer in the cards, at least consider the wealth accumulation potential of a lower cost city where firms pay New York rates!

Navigating Compensation Trends in 2023: Ensuring Fair Pay in the Legal Sector

Over the past decade, the legal industry has undergone substantial transformations, prompting law firms and in-house legal departments to continually adjust their compensation strategies to attract and retain top talent. In 2023, evaluating whether you are underpaid is more crucial than ever, given the salary increments, shifts in bonus structures, and the emergence of new compensation models. This article delves into the prevailing compensation trends in the legal sector and offers insights on how to ascertain if your remuneration aligns with current market standards.

Grasp the Compensation Landscape

To accurately assess whether you are underpaid, it is imperative to comprehend the existing compensation landscape for legal professionals. In 2023, Biglaw firms have persistently elevated associate salaries, with first-year associates now receiving a market standard of $215,000. This rising trend encompasses all seniority levels, with eighth-year associates earning up to $375,000.

Partner compensation has also witnessed a surge, with average profits per partner surpassing $2 million at several distinguished law firms. In-house general counsel roles have experienced considerable salary growth, with chief legal officers at Fortune 500 companies earning between $700,000 and $3 million, contingent on the company’s size and complexity.

Benchmark Your Compensation Against Industry Averages

A practical approach to determining whether you are underpaid is to juxtapose your current compensation with industry averages. Resources such as the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) and legal industry publications furnish extensive salary data for diverse legal roles and practice areas. Bear in mind that compensation can vary considerably based on factors like firm size, location, and practice area specialization.

Evaluate the Significance of Bonuses and Benefits

Beyond base salaries, bonuses and benefits are instrumental in ascertaining total compensation. In 2023, Biglaw firms have consistently offered substantial bonuses, with year-end and special bonuses frequently reaching six figures for high-performing senior associates. Moreover, law firms and in-house legal departments have broadened their benefits packages, encompassing health insurance, retirement plans, and flexible work arrangements. To precisely assess your compensation, take into account the worth of these supplementary factors.

While examining your compensation, it is vital to recognize that base salary constitutes just one aspect of a comprehensive compensation package. Bonuses and benefits, such as health insurance, retirement plans, and vacation time, can substantially influence your overall earnings. Ensure that you incorporate these components when comparing your compensation to market standards, as they can significantly impact your total income.

It is important to note that not all Am Law firms adhere to the market standard for compensation, with some underpaying their associates. For instance, Gibson Dunn has faced scrutiny in recent years for not aligning with the industry’s compensation trends. Despite the firm’s renown for its high-profile cases and robust practice groups, reports indicate that its associate compensation packages have not paralleled the rapid salary growth observed at other Am Law firms. This disparity underscores the necessity of researching and contrasting compensation packages across firms, even those with esteemed reputations, to guarantee that you are justly compensated for your skills and expertise.

To accurately determine if you are underpaid, gather information on comparable positions within your specific practice area, location, and experience level. This data can often be sourced from salary surveys, legal industry publications, or through conversations with colleagues and recruiters.

Examine Your Compensation in Relation to Your Peers

Another valuable tactic is to compare your compensation with that of your peers. Networking and candid discussions with colleagues or alumni can yield invaluable insights into the compensation landscape within your practice area or region. Approach these conversations with tact and professionalism.

Consult an Expert for Guidance

If you are uncertain about whether your compensation aligns with the market, consider seeking advice from a legal recruiter. Knowledgeable legal recruiters, like those at Lateral Link, possess an in-depth understanding of the legal market and can offer tailored guidance based on your distinct background and career aspirations.

Discerning if you are underpaid in 2023 entails comprehending the current compensation landscape, contrasting your salary with industry averages, taking into account bonuses and benefits, appraising your pay in relation to your peers, and seeking expert guidance when necessary. As the legal industry continues to evolve, staying informed about compensation trends and engaging in open dialogues can help ensure your pay corresponds with your skills and experience.

If you suspect that your compensation is not commensurate with the market, or if you are exploring new opportunities with competitive compensation packages, contact Lateral Link today. Our adept legal recruiters can assist you in navigating the intricate legal market and discovering the right position that aligns with your professional objectives and financial expectations. Don’t leave your career and financial success to chance – let Lateral Link help you seize the opportunities you deserve.

Partner Group Hiring: A Common Alternative to Traditional Expansion Strategies

2022 was a difficult year for major law firms, with considerably reduced opportunity to drive profit growth as compared to 2021. It’s no surprise, then, that the more challenging environment is influencing firms’ strategies for expanding their partnerships. With reduced margin for error, firms are mindful of the risks inherent in the traditional methods of hiring individual lateral partners or of merging with another firm. According to our clients and many of the law firm leaders with whom we work closely, hiring groups of partners has emerged as a sweet-spot alternative.

Hiring partner groups is less risky than individual lateral hiring

Hiring partners in groups can mitigate many of the risks associated with traditional lateral hiring. Take cultural fit, for example. A lateral partner hire who turns out to be a poor cultural match can do real damage to the cohesion of a firm and, in the final analysis, undermines the very purpose behind their hire. A 2021 survey by ALM Intelligence and Decipher Investigative Intelligence found that 29% of firms have had a lateral partner leave due to cultural fit issues with other partners. Rather than take the risk of integrating a single new lateral partner, firms often prefer to bring on a group of partners with a proven ability to work together, expecting that the group will replicate its existing equilibrium in the new firm and, thereby, contribute as efficiently as possible to the bottom line.

Group hiring also arguably offers greater security that claimed portable books of business are real. Nearly half of respondents to the ALM/Decipher survey reported that the majority of their firm’s partner laterals underperformed in relation to their stated book of business. The survey found that more than two-thirds of law firms have had a lateral partner leave for this reason.

Group moves improve these outcomes significantly. When a group moves together, clients are more likely to move with them and there are several additional indicators that portables will be solid. These range from such soft indicators as the trust shown by associates, counsels, and service partners moving alongside their rainmaking colleagues to harder indicators available when cross-referencing the business case provided by each partner in their lateral questionnaires.

Lastly, group hiring is also more efficient, offering more bang for the buck and swifter growth than a piecemeal approach – saving both time and money.

Group hiring is more targeted—and certain—than pursuing a merger

In theory, the greatest bang for the buck expansion strategy is a merger; but although we have seen some merger activity this year among smaller firms, and some attempts among larger ones, too, the specter of failure often looms large and a firm may invest significant energy in the process, only to walk away with nothing (take, for example, the recent merger attempts between Shearman Sterling and Hogan Lovells or O’Melveny and Allen & Overy). Worse yet, failed mergers often attract unwanted attention from competing firms looking to take advantage of any resulting turmoil by siphoning off spooked talent – the opposite of growth! Group hiring is less complex than conducting merger talks and a deal is more likely to be reached. In addition, the hiring firm can be more selective about the partners it takes on. Underperformers are less likely to be admitted through a group hire than through a larger-scale merger.

Partner group hiring is ideal for secondary market expansion

As we have previously discussed, we are in the midst of accelerated Biglaw expansion into new or smaller markets across the country. Consider the options available to a firm committed to opening a new office in Miami or Austin or Salt Lake City, with no prior presence in those markets. While they may, in the past, have hired two or three individual lateral partners from local firms and transferred some of the firm’s current partners to the new office in the hope it all jells successfully, firms are now more inclined to hire a group of local partners and use that group as the anchor for the new office, to be supplemented by some internal transfers.

Mintz Levin’s entry into the Toronto market is one example. This week we learned that the firm’s new office will be anchored by a group of three partners from leading Canadian firm Torys. Mintz has also hired a Toronto-based Dentons partner who was previously at Torys.

Expansion into a new market is a high-stakes move, with considerable reputational risk. A group with existing local client relationships that already works together productively provides a strong initial platform. Firms’ desire to maximize their likelihood of success in new markets is a key driver of the partner group hiring trend.

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If you are interested in learning more about firms’ partner hiring strategies, please contact me.

Applying AI to Legal Recruiting: New Tools for Efficiently Matching Firms and Candidates

With everyone talking about ChatGPT and the implications of AI tools for the future of various professions, now is an opportune time to consider how AI might change legal recruiting. We at Lateral Link have been actively engaging with this question for years: in fact, we have a sister company called Haistack.AI that is developing AI products for the legal recruiting industry.

So for the latest episode of the Movers, Shakers & Rainmakers podcast, we invited Haistack.AI Chief Technology Officer Michael Heise to discuss the possibilities and limitations of AI for law firms and legal recruiters. Mike educated us on the likely implications of AI for our industry and described the logic behind the product that Haistack.AI is currently building.

Mike is a seasoned legal tech innovator with a deep understanding of Biglaw firms. Prior to joining Haistack.AI, Mike held software leadership roles at Cooley and Covington & Burling. As he explained on the podcast, he is married to an attorney, and it was his wife who first sparked his interest in legal sector innovation.

AI can be a valuable tool

Mike explained that AI has the potential to assist lawyers with a broad range of tasks. For example, a litigator could rely on AI tools to set out the basic structure of a brief, allowing the lawyer to dedicate more of her time to the higher-value tasks of refining arguments and tailoring them to be most persuasive based on the unique facts of the case. As Mike puts it: “AI is not going to replace you. The person who knows how to effectively use AI is going to replace you.” AI tools will become increasingly sophisticated, but human judgment will remain essential for crafting the strongest and most original arguments.

Similarly, AI is well suited to help recruiters—both within firms and outside them—to more efficiently identify high-potential candidates. By reducing the time a recruiter spends on manually trawling through candidate profiles, AI can enable the recruiter to gain a deeper understanding of the high-potential candidate pool and the relative strengths of the candidates within that pool.

The Haistack.AI vision

As an example of how AI promises to make recruiting more targeted and efficient, Mike described the product that the team at Haistack.AI is building. It entails creating three essential models: (1) profiles of lawyers currently working at the firm that is using Haistack.AI in its hiring process; (2) profiles of lawyers working outside that firm; and (3) profiles corresponding to the specific roles for which the firm is recruiting. By comparing the profiles of lawyers previously hired by the relevant practice group and office with the profiles of external lawyers, the algorithm can instantly generate a list of high-potential candidates and an explanation for why those candidates appear to be a good fit. Moreover, the AI will use Lateral Link data to screen out candidates whom the firm has previously considered and determined not to be a fit. Finally, the tool will give some indication of the extent to which the leading candidates are likely to be in demand at other firms seeking to fill similar vacancies, alerting the hiring firm to the need to move quickly where a candidate is likely to be in especially high demand.

With the assistance of the Haistack.AI tool, the recruiter managing the search will immediately see how the algorithm matched a candidate’s qualifications and experience to those of current members of the group. This is where human judgment comes in. The AI accelerates the first step of identifying a shortlist, but the law firm’s recruiting and attorney professionals must assess whether the shortlist fits their needs, through interviews and other more traditional evaluations.

Mike noted that in addition to generating lists of promising candidates, the Haistack.AI tool could also help identify current members of a firm who are in especially high demand relative to what the broader lateral market is seeking. In alerting a firm to attorneys who are at greater risk of leaving, the tool can help nudge a practice group to be more proactive about taking steps to keep valuable team members happy.

AI is not a panacea

Mike also explained the importance of recognizing the limitations of AI and of not buying into the excessive hype that frequently surrounds promising technologies in their early stages. AI will not solve all hiring problems. To take just one example, the inputs for AI models like the ones that Haistack.AI are building are composed of historical data — the models are designed to replicate the firm’s past hiring decisions. To the extent the past hiring was suboptimal, such as through failing to hire qualified diverse candidates, the AI tool will not correct the problem. Instead, it is important for the human users to be thoughtful about patterns in past hiring that they do not wish to replicate and make an active effort to change them.

Done with Biglaw? Why NOW Is the Time to Consider a Smaller Firm

Talking to associates about career options is my favorite aspect of my job as a recruiter. Having worked on the recruitment teams at both a boutique and one of the world’s biggest law firms, I have a nuanced perspective on the pros and cons of each. The bottom line is that there is no “one size fits all” solution: many attorneys thrive at their Biglaw practices, but others prefer a different path.

Most Biglaw associates I speak with view a move in-house as the only true exit option. They often perceive in-house roles to offer a perfect convergence of lifestyle, work and benefits. That might be true in some companies, but associates who make the in-house transition often discover that their expectations were unrealistic, as my colleague Adrienne Levi has discussed in detail.

Of course, recent layoffs at both major law firms and large companies are on the minds of many associates. It may feel like there is no safe next step. But it’s important to recognize that Biglaw and in-house roles are not the only possibilities. For an associate looking to make a move in the current market, a smaller regional firm or boutique may be a more compelling option than ever. Let’s take a look at what these firms can offer and why now is the time to consider a lateral move to one.

Job security

Smaller firms are not immune to market forces, but they are in a different position from the many Biglaw firms that participated in the hiring frenzy of the past few years. By and large, smaller firms sat on the sidelines, hiring conservatively on an “as needed” basis. So at a time when many Biglaw firms and in-house legal departments have “dead weight” to shed, smaller firms are better positioned to avoid layoffs.

Breadth of experience

Smaller firms and boutiques are often full service counsel to their clients, despite having far fewer attorneys. This enables corporate associates to work across a variety of practices, including more niche areas like real estate, employment and corporate governance. That opportunity contrasts starkly with the typical Biglaw experience of specialization into a single area such as M&A or finance.

Associates who switch to a smaller firm often find the variety refreshing. But it also has a more tactical advantage: the opportunity to pivot your practice will serve you well in a slower economy when certain transactional practices can grind to a halt, putting your job at risk.

Superior lifestyle/compensation balance

As Adrienne points out, there will likely be a compensation trade-off when making a move to a smaller firm or a boutique, assuming you are currently on the Biglaw market scale. But if you choose wisely, any compensation hit can be more than balanced by a reduced workload.

For example, I work regularly with a San Francisco-based boutique that pays around 15-20% below the typical Biglaw scale. However, this firm requires just 1800 hours annually, whereas the average Biglaw corporate associate bills about 2500 per year. So the 15-20% pay cut comes with an hours reduction of around 30%. For many associates, that is an attractive trade. Even from a wealth maximization perspective, it can be a smart move to shift to a workload that makes a longer private practice career feel like a viable option. Imagine what you could do with an extra 700 hours a year!

They’re hiring!

I’ve spoken with several regional and boutique firms who view this downturn as an opportunity. Because they can be more nimble with their fees, they expect to attract potentially distressed clients, and they anticipate needing more talent to support a growing pipeline of matters. Many of these firms have no qualms about hiring associates who were laid off: Biglaw training is valuable, and these firms recognize their opportunity to capitalize on the newly available talent pool in a less competitive hiring environment.

In summary, while I could also write a lengthy article on the benefits of sticking it out at a big firm (training, cutting edge legal work, not to mention comp…), I think it’s important to recognize that staying in Biglaw is not the best path for everyone. For those ready to move on, there are wonderfully fulfilling law firm opportunities out there.

Back to Normal: A Reality Check on the Associate Lateral Market

If you’re an associate entering the lateral market, I have good news and bad news.  The good news?  Despite all the talk of recession, the lateral market remains open for business.  The bad news?  The days of minimal scrutiny and massive sign-on bonuses are behind us.  For associates whose conception of the lateral market was forged in the chaotic, unprecedented period from late 2020 through mid-2022, a reality check is in order.

Firms have more power now

It’s hard to overstate just how remarkably imbalanced the lateral market was in 2021.  Transactional associates with even average credentials held substantial leverage, often receiving quick offers from multiple firms, complete with sign-on bonuses of $50,000 or more.  Given that the 2021 market was a striking departure from the historical norm, it’s not surprising that the pendulum has swung back to a more typical place.

In 2023, a lateral move requires more strategy and effort.  That starts with the decision about which firms to pursue.  A good recruiter will be honest with you about the firms that are realistic options in light of your credentials.  You can help us help you by being transparent about where you’ve applied and interviewed in the past, and why you’re looking for a change.  If we understand the reasons motivating your search, we can give better advice on which firms are likely to be a match.

Traditional interviews are back

Just as offices are beginning to look more like the pre-Covid normal (at least on Tuesdays and Wednesdays!) the lateral interview process is starting to resemble 2019.

Zoom interviews are no longer the default.  You should expect a “hybrid” process.  Some interviews—especially those with partners—may still be virtual, but you should assume that a visit to the office will be required, even if you don’t live locally.

When interviewing with local firms, you should anticipate at least a half day in person.  If you’re interviewing with a group out of state, be prepared to devote at least a full day to interviews, accounting for travel time.  Try to make yourself as available as possible.  Firms must typically coordinate the schedules of several partners to accommodate your interview, so your flexibility will be appreciated.  Once the interview is confirmed, commit to showing up as promised—only a dire emergency should cause you to ask to reschedule.

Firms are more selective now than they have been in recent years, with multiple candidates typically interviewing for a single opening.  Given the increased competition, preparation is essential.  Know who you will meet, and have a plan for what you hope to achieve in the conversation.  Based on the available background information, can you anticipate any potential sources of rapport with your interviewer?  On what topics might this person have uniquely valuable insight?  Make sure you arrive with some thoughtful, well-tailored questions.

Remember to dress professionally.  In-office dress codes are looser these days than ever, but you should still wear a suit to an interview.  If you haven’t dressed formally in a while, take a moment now to confirm that you have appropriate, well-fitting attire.  And if you’re flying, make sure to pack your interview clothing in your carry-on bag.

Firms are taking their time to extend offers

Back when the market was red hot, firms were forced to make offers exceptionally quickly. Today, it’s customary to take more time.  Some firms may still move fast if there’s a pressing need to do so, but taking a week or longer to put together a written offer is not unusual.  Occasionally, firms may run conflicts checks before a formal offer is made, further delaying the process.  Be patient, but tell your recruiter if you have another offer pending, or some other good reason why an urgent decision is necessary.  Nobody wants to lose a strong candidate over timing, and we can prod firms to speed up where it’s genuinely necessary.

Once you receive an offer, there tends to be little scope for negotiation.  This is particularly true in large markets with lockstep associate salaries.  In some cases, class year may be a point of discussion: if you’re re-tooling to a different practice area, lateraling to a more sophisticated practice, or the scope of your practice is shifting, you may be asked to take a class year “haircut.”  This is standard practice and is often to your long-term benefit.  That said, if you disagree with the firm’s assessment of your level, talk to your recruiter about it.

Before 2021, sign-on bonuses were not standard practice, and today they are once again the exception.  Even so, there are circumstances where it makes sense to ask.  If you’re taking a pay cut to move from Big Law to a regional firm, walking away from your previous year’s bonus, being asked to start on an accelerated timeline, or you have multiple offers, it’s reasonable to attempt to negotiate a sign-on payment.  If you are relocating, it’s common for large firms to pay a “relocation” allowance in the form of a sign-on bonus.  In any case, it’s important to keep your expectations realistic.  You aren’t going to get a $50k+ sign-on bonus as a matter of course.  The typical current range in a large market is more like $10-25k.

Be aware of post-offer expectations

Once you have received an offer, you should inform the firm of your decision as soon as you’ve made it, ideally within a few days.  If a quick decision isn’t feasible (for example, because you’re juggling other interviews or offers), be transparent with your recruiter to enable us to manage the firm’s expectations.  Note that conflicts and background checks can take as long as a few weeks, so it’s best to get that process started as soon as possible.

Upon clearing conflicts and giving notice, it’s standard to start within 2-4 weeks.  If your circumstances require a longer gap, state your request clearly, but be aware that asking for more than a month is generally frowned upon.  Wrapping up a trial you’ve been staffed on or taking a pre-planned vacation are good reasons for requesting a delayed start.

Don’t get discouraged

All of us wish that the post-Covid lateral bonanza could have continued indefinitely.  But that was never going to happen.  Instead of lamenting the reversion to more normal conditions, focus on the positive.  If you commit to a lateral search and approach it correctly, you still have every chance of landing at a firm that will be a better fit.  In the end, that’s what matters most.

Partners Assessing a Secondary Market Move: Finding the Right Firm and Office

Back in December, we suggested that the expansion of Am Law firms into new secondary markets may have been the defining Am Law firm story of 2022, and we explained some of the many reasons why partners at Am Law firms in major cities are moving to secondary markets in unprecedented numbers.

As the 2023 partner lateral market comes into focus, we can report that opportunities at Am Law firms in secondary markets remain plentiful. This is especially true for practices that are less dependent on a strong economy such as litigation, antitrust, privacy, data security, intellectual property, employee benefits, and tax.

Secondary market Am Law opportunities may appeal to partners in two categories. First, they may be a fit for partners interested in moving from outside the state to a secondary market, for the reasons described in our December article. Second, they may be attractive to partners already based in a secondary market who see a chance to “trade up” to an Am Law firm that has recently arrived in their city.

If you find yourself in either of these categories, what are the most important factors to consider as you search for the right firm and office?

Practice alignment with office strategy

The most important criterion to assess is how well your practice aligns with the firm’s strategy for the particular secondary office you’re considering. Note that office-level strategy is not the same thing as firm-level strategy!

Typically, when a firm opens in a new city, it will have identified specific priority practice areas and clients (both existing and potential) for the new office. Two office openings from last month offer clear examples. Goodwin launched in Philadelphia, targeting health care, life sciences, private equity, and financial services work. Meanwhile, Davis Wright opened in Culver City with the aim of expanding its entertainment, media, and healthcare practices.

If your practice area aligns with the new office priorities, that’s an excellent sign. Especially where the firm has publicly announced the practices it intends to build, there will be a sense of urgency internally to back up the talk with demonstrable success. If your practice fits into the plan, you can expect the firm to make a real effort to support you. Conversely, if your practice is not a priority for the office in question, think twice. Even if the firm is willing to bring you in, you cannot expect the same level of support as will be extended to partners in the priority practices.

Cross-selling opportunities

A critical component of strategic fit is the extent to which you can reasonably expect to benefit from cross-selling opportunities, both at the local office level and firm-wide.

Cross-selling can sometimes be driven by proximity to key existing and potential clients: the logic is that by being nearby, partners will be positioned to build strong relationships that lead to servicing an increasing proportion of the client’s legal needs. In interviews about the Culver City opening, Davis Wright partners took care to emphasize their focus on creating cross-selling opportunities on LA’s Westside for lateral partners. Similarly, firms opening in Miami—one of the most popular secondary markets for recent Am Law office expansion—are taking care to site their offices as close to priority clients as possible, in some cases securing space in the same prime Brickell developments that are drawing recently arrived leading hedge funds.

Platform benefits

Although office strategy should be at the forefront, it’s also critical to consider the platform offered by the firm as a whole. How valuable would this firm’s platform be for your practice? K&L Gates’s communications around its office opening in Nashville in 2021 highlighted this factor. In the firm’s press release, partners connected the strong local opportunities in healthcare to the firm’s national healthcare practice and emphasized the value of “a fully integrated law firm with the breadth of practice area capabilities, industry insights and knowledge, and geographic reach that K&L Gates offers.” It’s particularly logical that K&L Gates would play up this factor in Nashville, which historically has not drawn interest from Am Law firms with global reach. But platform is an important consideration regardless of your destination.

Talent pool

Access to talent has been a key driver of recent secondary market expansions. That includes not only newly-hired associates and counsels drawn to secondary market offices but also lawyers currently employed by the firm who may stay longer if given the opportunity to transfer. The secondary markets that firms have favored are viewed by many as nice (and cost-effective!) places to live. Consider, for example, Kirkland’s new offices in Boise and Salt Lake City. Another selling point for many secondary market offices is the lack of state income tax. Think Miami, Austin or Seattle.

Talent has also been a key selling point in attracting lateral partners to these new offices. One reason that partners already working in secondary locations are often eager to join firms in the Am Law is because Am Law firms feature a materially more sophisticated legal talent pool, which newly arrived partners can leverage to accelerate their practices. For Am Law firms arriving in secondary markets, depth of talent is a key advantage—this is a dimension on which the regional firms with a longer history in these markets typically cannot compete.

Lateral partner integration

It’s also essential to inquire about and understand your potential new firm’s lateral partner integration plan. Successfully integrating new partners into the firm’s existing practices is in everyone’s best interests, but even so, we’ve witnessed many cases of poorly managed integration.

For an example of a firm vocalizing its commitment to integrating lateral partners, consider Latham’s opening in Austin in 2021. Latham brought in three lateral partners with deep Austin ties to anchor the new office, two from DLA Piper and one from Wilson Sonsini. In the press release, Latham Chair and Managing Partner Rich Trobman spoke of the firm’s intention “to offer clients in Austin the very best of the Latham platform, by combining our new partners’ experience and skill sets with our already deep and successful bench spanning capital markets, venture capital, and private equity.” If you’re considering a lateral move of any kind—but especially to a relatively smaller office—you will want to make sure your new firm is similarly committed to integrating you effectively.

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If you are a partner interested in exploring secondary market opportunities, we invite you to get in touch. Although there are ample partner-level opportunities out there, partner needs are hardly ever posted. Drawing on our longstanding relationships with leading Am Law firms, we make it our business to know who is looking. We assist with interview and business plan preparation, and when you reach the offer stage, we can negotiate on your behalf, minimizing awkward interactions with your soon-to-be partners. Remember, we do this for a living. It’s a wise choice to avail yourself of the benefit of our experience.