The economic standstill caused by the COVID-19 crisis continues to reshape the legal field beyond recognition, forcing the industry to affect a cultural reboot. Now, the latest trend caused by the pandemic is the potential shift of associates from large to smaller legal markets.
The recent spate of layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts in Big Law firms are driving associates away from the large legal markets like Los Angeles, Chicago and long time legal mecca New York City to places like Charlotte, Denver, and Detroit, where the cost of living is notably lower and quality of life is better.
While there are few job openings right now, once the effects of the pandemic wear off Big Law associates are exploring all options that will allow them to switch to the mid-size and smaller legal markets, according to legal recruiters.
Soon after the pandemic took shape in the United States, and brick and mortar law firms were replaced with remote work, associates living in Los Angeles, New York, were forced to move out of these cities, temporarily to weather the pandemic in less densely populated locations, close to families.
Many of those associates are now reconsidering if they should ever get back to the large city once after their firms begin the transition back to the office, and wonder whether living closer to family in small cities is going to be possible.
Michelle Fivel, a partner in the associate practice group at legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa told Law360 that while some law firms allow associates who want to keep working remotely even after the pandemic ends to do so, in most cases firms will likely require face-to-face interactions at least once a week for things like client meetings and group meetings.
“The fact that people can do work remotely doesn’t mean that they will get that work once they leave town,” San Francisco Bay-based recruiter Daren Wein told Law360. “I have heard many, many stories of people who have left their longtime office but stayed with their firm and found the transition difficult because ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps that is less pronounced right now since everyone is out of sight, but that will not last forever.”
If associates are deprived of the option to work remotely in small cities, experts predict they will likely make a lateral move to either a regional firm or a large firm with an office in their intended city, experts said.
Legal Recruiter Harrison Barnes told JD Journal the small legal market tends to be more resilient to economic upheavals.
“If I were an attorney in a major legal market vulnerable to the recession, I would try and relocate home (if I was from a smaller legal market originally), or get a position in a suburban market or smaller market where salaries are lower, but work is more stable,” Barnes said.
‘There are tons of smaller to mid-sized markets outside of these significant areas where the economic contraction is less likely to occur. There are also smaller legal markets that are not dependent on business from these broader legal markets and have a more local client base that will be largely unaffected. ‘
“Attorneys in smaller markets are likely to be far better protected than attorneys in major legal markets, and many of these law firms will likely not experience much of a downturn at all,” said Barnes.
A legal recruiter based in North Carolina told Law360 he sees appetite among young attorneys to move to his area of the country.
“[There are] many firmwide hiring freezes at present,” he said. “But I do get calls from BigLaw associates in the largest cities wanting to move to the Southeast for green grass, the ability to get outside, no need to ride a subway.”
And the cost of living is also a factor, he told Law360 with lower taxes and the ability to buy a home in a city like Charlotte with significantly more space than something at the same price in Manhattan or San Francisco.
“A lot of these firms now have offices in places like Charlotte. If you can do high-level finance work in a city like Charlotte, maybe there’s less allure to go to New York City,” Young said.