After a lull, recruiting poised to rev up again

Bill Cresenzo
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Instead of welcoming Amy Wooten with coffee and pastries and showing her to her new office on her first day as a litigator at Ward and Smith’s Raleigh office in April, her new colleagues watched from a distance as she walked into the firm’s lobby, grabbed a sanitized box that held her computer, and left the building to begin her first workday at home.

Wooten, who came to Ward and Smith from another firm in Raleigh, spent the next several months working remotely, but now she’s comfortably settled, and the pandemic-related worries she had on that first day have dissipated. But before that, she had to deal with the conundrum COVID created for many attorneys: they might want to move to a new firm, but the unpredictability has thus far stymied them.

While recruiting never truly stopped, some firms have seen a bit of a lull over the last eight months as attorneys weighed concerns over everything from not being able to get to know new colleagues and clients in person to whether a firm might face pandemic-related financial difficulties that could later cost them their jobs. But now, some who stayed put in spring and summer are re-thinking their futures, especially now that working from home has become second nature.

For recruiters, 2019 was an excellent year for placing new attorneys at many firms, and they were keeping up the pace in early 2020. Matt Leerberg, a managing partner with Fox Rothschild in Raleigh, said his firm recruited four new partners within a few months before the pandemic. But once COVID hit, candidates wanted to see how it played out before making their next move, which made plenty of sense since both informing old clients about a move and integrating into a new firm’s distinct culture can be tougher to do over Zoom.

Even so, throughout the pandemic, the firm has been adding new attorneys to least one of its offices across the country almost every week. And over the past few months Leerberg has seen a shift as candidates are more familiar with working remotely and thinking more about the long term. It’s a shift that other firms say they’re seeing as well.

Lori Patton, the chief recruiting officer for Womble Bond Dickinson, said that while recruitment still isn’t on track to equal the level seen in 2019, the firm has continued “healthy recruiting” levels, and about 15 attorneys have joined the firm’s North Carolina and South Carolina offices since the pandemic began.

Patton said that most attorney candidates fall into two categories: Some are risk-averse and are ultimately deciding to stay with their current firm. But for others, isolation has given them more time for introspection, and they don’t want to wait any longer to make a change.

“They’re saying, ‘This is the craziest thing in my lifetime and life is short,’” Patton said. “‘People are dying, and I’m really getting clear about my life and the fragility of life and my career.’”

Onboarding new attorneys, which could sometimes be a challenge even in the best of times, has actually turned out to be easier than expected, many firms say. The emphasis that firms are having to put on technology has eased the process of getting new attorneys integrated into a firm’s computer network.

Matthew Sawchak of Robinson Bradshaw, formerly North Carolina’s solicitor general, said the firm made his move to private litigation practice easier by making sure he was well set-up for remote work, and so his day-to-day lawyering has remained efficient.

The human factor remains a challenge, but increasingly a surmountable one. Sawchak said he’s had to be particularly intentional about communicating with his new clients and co-workers. He wasn’t familiar with Zoom before the pandemic, and while he now wonders how he lived without it, he’s still counting the days until he can have more in person-meetings and meals with clients and colleagues.

Paul Fogleman, a new partner in WBD’s Raleigh office, is a transactional attorney in the real estate and capital markets, so he was at his desk much of the time even before the pandemic. He already knew many people at WBD and others he didn’t know have already reached out to him, so his transition was seamless, although he said that he too is looking forward to getting back into the office so he can meet his new colleagues in person. (He actually began talks with the firm back in January, when fist-bumps were just starting to replace handshakes, so he was able to meet at least a few then.)

Many attorneys pondering a lateral move want reassurance that the firm has the infrastructure and support system in place to make the transition successful. Wooten advises them to consider how the pandemic has affected their own practice areas, and ask if the new firm is hiring more than one attorney, if it’s had significant turnover since the pandemic, and how it’s supporting remote work and what it plans for 2021.

Those were all questions Wooten asked before making her jump, and while not being able to be in the office during those early days was difficult, she says she’s glad she made the jump.