As someone who has been part of the legal community for over 40 years, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when some firms started cutting costs, furloughing employees, and making layoffs across the board. Generally, law firms are “cash poor” in the first quarter.
It will be interesting to see how the profession will look once workers come back. From my personal perspective relating to diversity and inclusion, I see a sharp shift to relevance, flexibility, and wellness.
Which practices will be relevant and which practices will become irrelevant in the near term? From the lateral moves that I have thus far read about, bankruptcy, labor and employment, and litigation will be busy. If the FTC Commissioner Noah Phillips has his way, there will be a temporary halt to M&A transactions until the FTC unanimously determines that small businesses, workers, and consumers are no longer under severe financial distress. And that portends badly for some firms who rely on M&A to achieve those off-the-charts profits per partner.
If there is not a strong economic recovery later this year, the question will be: How many attorneys and staff will go from being furloughed to being permanently laid off? But the larger question may be: How many attorneys does a firm really need to serve its clients? And how much space does a firm need to accomplish clients’ needs? There’s a question as to whether firms will sublet space. Just how much may depend on how many people actually want to travel to work in a skyscraper.
Flexibility will be a key component of the new landscape. I see it as survival of the fittest. Who can successfully work from home and accomplish just as much or more from the confines of a home office?
How will women be affected by this? Right now, women attorneys (and some men too) are practicing law and helping with their children’s remote learning. When school resumes, will a new paradigm for the home office take hold? Flexibility will be key, and law firm leaders will need to take a look at the number of hours worked from the home office. I have been reading that many attorneys working from home have been more efficient. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that if they are not billing at the rate law firms expect of them, well you know the answer.
Wellness and health will also take on a new meaning as law firms begin to plot how to reopen. For firms in big cities located in skyscrapers and high rises, it’s going to be interesting. I’ve heard that buildings will have something similar to TSA-like entry involving taking temperatures, long lines for elevators, mandatory face masks, and a list of questions before entering the building. In addition, staggered work hours will become part of the new normal. How will that work and how will those people be selected?
Bottom line: It is incumbent on law firm leaders to present a thoughtful united front on how to proceed. I see firms with excellent leadership creating a work environment that is safe and welcoming. Maybe this is a moment in time when law firms can finally become responsive and flexible businesses. We shall see.