While before 2020, 40% of lawyers and 70% of legal support staff worked solely within their employer’s office, only 23% of lawyers and 35% of other staff members did by 2022, according to a 2022 Clio report.
For law firms, new hires’ growing desire to be fully remote may present oversight and other concerns — yet also, opportunities.
When Lengea Law posted online associate and legal assistant job listings in 2021, Managing Partner Sara Shikhman says the firm was initially looking for someone local to New York City to work on-site.
However, after receiving an unexpected response from applicants around the country, Lengea ended up hiring people in Chicago, Florida and Connecticut.
“The search itself prompted us to think that way,” Shikhman says. “At the same time, we were finding clients are trying to fit more meetings into a day, so they’re requesting to meet online, versus in-person, much more than they were before. We’re a client-driven business; if our clients are happy to meet with us by Zoom, then we’re happy to accommodate them.”
The firm now conducts all job candidate interviews over Zoom. For the first time, Shikhman says, she has high-level employees she’s never met in person.
A WHOLE NEW HIRING WORLD
Opening recruiting efforts up to a wider audience helped Lengea fill a position it had been struggling to find qualified candidates for in New York. Shikhman says hiring an attorney in Florida proved particularly beneficial because a number of the firm’s clients happened to be opening locations in the state.
“Now when we post jobs, we just say, ‘This is a fully remote job — no coming to the office required,’” she says. “We use that as a recruiting point. We get a lot of people from all over the world. We’ve had applicants from Europe [and] Africa who are saying they’re happy to work our East Coast hours. People are very receptive to it.”
Hiring outside of locations where firms have a physical presence can offer a number of advantages — particularly in today’s tight job market.
Remote employees can potentially provide significant cost savings, allowing firms to reduce their physical office space. Lengea did just that in 2021, about three months after bringing out-of-state hires on board.
“There are some real intangible benefits to the staff being from different places. They have different experiences, a different perspective.”
“I felt that if they don’t want to meet in person, then I don’t have to have my staff be very close to them geographically,” she says. “There are some real intangible benefits to the staff being from different places. They have different experiences, a different perspective. Collectively, we’re able to come up with better answers for our clients.”
Employees located outside of a firm’s geographical area can also help expand law firms’ business by offering clients both the scope of the organization’s overall resources and personal attention from firm members working in their area.
Culhane Meadows, for instance, which has been fully virtual since its 2013 launch, tries to recruit employees in specific areas, says Grant Walsh, Founder and Managing Partner, who also coordinates its national recruiting efforts.
The firm’s goal, Walsh says, is generally to build to a critical mass of at least 10 to 12 lawyers in any given location. Culhane Meadows feels that’s a good amount of colleagues to participate in client pitches and development meetings, brainstorm ideas and establish the camaraderie the firm believes is an essential part of its culture — despite having a completely remote staff.
“If they get an applicant who says, ‘I’ve got a law degree. I’ve got a good book of business. I live in Fargo, North Dakota,’ [the firm can say] ‘We now have a Fargo, North Dakota office.’ And then do the same thing in Boise, or Denver,” says Walsh. “We have been very deliberate about growing by market. If you’re just a lawyer [who’s] completely on your own in one city and you’re this outpost of a firm, it’s a lot harder to stay connected and feel that cultural integration.”
Firms that decide to hire fully remote, far away employees may need to make some adjustments to facilitate the relationship.
Pacific Cascade Legal, which provides services in Oregon and Washington, found time zone differences have required some flexibility from the firm and its three remote employees, according to Founding Attorney Lewis Landerholm.
An intake specialist who’s been based in Alabama since April 2022 adjusted her hours to mirror the West Coast firm’s schedule. Their marketing assistant, who relocated to England in 2019, and HR manager, who transitioned from working at the firm’s headquarters to Georgia in 2022, have both shifted their workday so a portion overlaps with the time other firm members are in the office.
Landerholm says Pacific Cascade Legal has made an effort to schedule meetings earlier in the day to accommodate the difference.
“It helps that all three of our remote employees have a very engaged attitude and make an effort to stay connected and hop on an out-of-hours call if it’s urgent,” he says. “Hiring remote employees who show initiative to communicate with coworkers and contribute to office culture, even with the distance, makes it a much smoother transition.”
“The remote workforce is here to stay; the benefit is you have the ability to look beyond just regional jurisdictional boundaries when it comes to hiring top-notch talent.”
Regular contact with remote workers is important, too. Landerholm’s firm schedules monthly video conference meetings, in addition to meetings that specifically touch on departmental tasks and goals.
Culhane Meadows also sponsors monthly firm gatherings, ranging from happy hours to escape room visits. In smaller markets, such as new areas of operation where only one or two attorneys have been recruited, firm members will oftentimes affiliate with another nearby larger market, Walsh says. The Austin and Houston employees, for example, may alternate attending events in each other’s cities every other month.
“You’ve got to make people feel connected,” Walsh says. “The remote workforce is here to stay; the benefit is you have the ability to look beyond just regional jurisdictional boundaries when it comes to hiring top-notch talent. It’s really important to have the virtual interaction, but there’s just no replacement for-person connectivity.”
THE FUTURE OF EXTERNAL EMPLOYEES
Fully remote hires aren’t the right fit for every firm; New Haven, Connecticut-based Green and Sklarz, for instance, opted not to open its search for a controller up to encompass other areas, says Eric Green, a Partner with the firm.
Green was the lone partner who thought the scenario could possibly work; the other five, he says, felt having a remote controller would be too extreme a change. Now a year a half later — and still unable to find someone to hire — the firm has outsourced some of the work to an external bookkeeping company and concluded it will need to have someone part-time handle at least part of the related administrative work.
“Other than Yale and pizza, most people don’t want to move to New Haven, so for us to find somebody as a controller was very challenging,” Green says. “They could do the bookkeeping from afar, but they’re not there day to day, if [you] need a check. Admittedly, it’s not that we can’t overcome that, but you’re talking about a bunch of attorneys [who] felt like it was a bridge too far. They might be able to handle having a partner who’s off-site and can get on Teams, [but] it’s different to have this person who’s at the very center of the financial universe of the firm not be anywhere near us.”
The firm does currently have two part-time attorneys who work fully outside of the office in other areas of the state. One is a former federal prosecutor in an of counsel role who is based in West Hartford and receives a percentage of what she collects as payment, and the other is a former IRS revenue officer who lives in Farmington and is paid hourly, based on his billings.
However, due in part to its experience during the pandemic, Green says the firm is a bit hesitant about adding employees who’d solely work independently in a separate location.
“What we struggled with was literally, we had younger associates and some staff who thought they were on vacation,” he says. “It was a small number — of 25 people, three or four. We had an associate who we noticed, after about two weeks, didn’t bill one minute. We did not figure out a good way to manage staff and the newer associates remotely.”
However, despite his colleagues’ reluctance to bring new team members on board in areas where the firm doesn’t have a physical presence, Green sees remote employees as a trend that isn’t likely to go away.
“The younger generation isn’t going to stand for it,” he says. “Remote work does create tremendous opportunities to bring in highly skilled people that you can’t find in your local market. … I could bring in talent from anywhere. It opens up unbelievable possibilities.”