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What It's Like To Join A Law Firm In The COVID-19 Era

By Brandon Lowrey · 2020-04-03 16:11:07 -0400

During her first week at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, Shannon Yavorsky was booked up with training and meetings with her new colleagues.

It was a couple of days after the first reported U.S. coronavirus death, but Orrick's San Francisco office was still buzzing, the data privacy and security partner recalled.

Though some were working from home, there were still plenty of people around — and perhaps a little more hand sanitizer than usual. Yavorsky was set to jet off to London to meet with the team there just a few days later.

That was the first week of March.

"I think we didn't understand the magnitude of the crisis at that time; everyone was carrying on," she told Law360. "I joined at a really odd time."

In the space of Yavorsky's first week, Orrick shut down its offices and required every one of its lawyers to work from home. Stay-home orders and social distancing have transformed lunches with partners and coffees with clients into Zoom videoconference happy hours and meetings.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought uncertainty to law firms and their clients alike, forcing some to push back start dates for new hires and others to take more drastic measures, industry consultants said. But many firms are still bringing aboard new associates or laterals, trying to orient them and give each a warm greeting and a personal touch — from a safe distance.

The topic of hiring and onboarding during these troubled times is prickly; several BigLaw firms that had recently announced hires declined to comment for this article.

Legal industry consultants say, however, that they've been getting calls for advice on what to do with new hires as COVID-19 shutters physical law offices across the U.S.

Erika Heyder-Seeley, attorney search director at recruiter Special Counsel's Parker + Lynch Legal, said most law firms have been onboarding their new hires remotely, even as others push back start dates or pause them indefinitely in the face of the widening pandemic.

Some firms have already moved into austerity mode. On Tuesday, Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft LLP halted partner distributions and slashed associate and staff pay, and Pryor Cashman LLP furloughed associates. Reed Smith LLP slowed partner cash distributions on Monday, and Womble Bond Dickinson announced it had laid off some workers and cut pay for others.

But the vast majority of firms are just trying to move ahead with their new hires, sending computers to welcome and train them remotely, Heyder-Seeley said. Firms of all sizes have been quick to adapt, she said.

"We've seen offers accepted recently with firms where they met once in person and now all the other interviews have been virtual, and now offers have been extended," Heyder-Seeley said, "which is really positive and shows that firms have quickly adapted to these changing times."

Several firms told Law360 that they already do much of their onboarding virtually. Personal touches have been a little bit tougher to emulate, but firms and consultants are getting creative. Heyder-Seeley said some firms have been catering partner lunches with delivered meals and videoconferencing.

Jeffrey Lowe, global practice leader of consultancy Major Lindsey & Africa's law firm practice group, said he has generally been happily surprised at how quickly law firms are adapting to the situation. In fact, he said, it appears likely that older partners who might have been uncomfortable with computers will be forced to master videoconferencing technology, perhaps leading to wider adoption of the practices going forward.

Law firms, often mocked for being conservative in their approaches to novel situations, have really stepped up, Lowe said.

"I think a lot of times law firms get bad raps, but we've seen the exact opposite here," he said. "They've been among the first companies to say, 'This is really dangerous, we're not going to have people coming into offices.'"

And although some firms are delaying hires and start dates, Lowe said he has generally found that firms are trying to adapt in the hiring and onboarding areas as well.

"I think everyone is just of the mind of, 'We just have to do the best that we can do,'" he said.

But not all changes have been dramatic.

Many firms already send new hires through a gauntlet of virtual training and remote chatting.

"Other than not being able to be physically in the office, we run a fairly electronic onboarding process anyway, so that has really helped us enable a smooth transition of lateral lawyers even in these circumstances," said Bridgette Stahlman, chief of partner recruiting and integration for Jackson Walker LLP.

The IT department has done heroic work at the Texas firm, she said, making it easy and seamless to transition to remote work. In fact, new hires might have easier access to more people across the law firm's offices because everyone is remote now.

But some personal touches are a little bit tougher to replicate. Generally, new attorneys are given gifts to commemorate their starts at the firm. The latest hires might have to wait on that.

"It's kind of a work in progress," Stahlman said. "We've basically had to change that … so we're using different online options to send them something to their home."

At Orrick, partners have been using Webex to interview job candidates and onboard new hires since March 16. The firm said in a statement that it's trying to emulate its normal live process online.

The firm also said that it had long been "geographically agnostic," so it had plenty of infrastructure for onboarding far-flung partners. One difference now is that the IT team has had to spring into action more quickly than usual to get Orrick laptops for the new employees.

"Obviously, there are some parts of welcoming a new partner that are better done in person, but we are doing the best we can to adapt and make clear our excitement about the new partner's arrival," the firm said. "We are trying to stay in close contact with the new partner to make sure they feel part of the fabric of the firm, with more frequent, quick calls/videos/emails, until we all return to our offices."

Yavorsky, the data privacy and security partner who recently joined Orrick, said that what has so far most impressed her about the firm has been its constant communication and transparency.

She said the firm has been circulating emails geared toward helping everyone feel connected, and showing a great deal of transparency and effort in dealing with the crisis, from problem-solving to daily meditations to deal with the stress of life during a pandemic.

"Just the support from management has been really nice," she said.

--Additional reporting by Aebra Coe. Editing by Pamela Wilkinson and Aaron Pelc.

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