The qualities law firms look for in lawyers during the COVID-19 inflicted downturn

21 Apr, 2020
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Chris Lipscomb

Chief Operation Officer, Blue Pencil Legal

The COVID 19 pandemic is touching all aspects of our business/economic environment as well as having a very real impact on our personal lives. While law firms are often thought to be less affected by global downturns than other sectors, the current crisis is no ordinary downturn, and its trajectory is difficult to predict.

With a quarter of the world’s population effectively in lockdown and the oil price at rock bottom, law firms are having to take defensive action on a number of fronts e.g., limiting partner draws, reducing, or cancelling staff bonuses, as well as making use of temporary freezes on hiring. We know this because our business is servicing the legal sector, and our clients tell us how it is. However, what our clients are also telling us is that they are always still on the look-out for “strong candidates.”

This may seem paradoxical, but in fact, it is common sense. In good times or bad, law firms survive through their intellectual capital. I can affirm to this myself having previously been an HR Director of a law firm for nine years. I was with them at the time of the last global financial crisis. Whilst hiring was largely frozen at the peak of the recession, some selective hiring continued and not just to backfill normal turnover. Talented lawyers will always be sought after, and when we came across them, we hired them. We did this because we also wanted to invest in the firm’s future.

So what qualities are law firms looking for in lawyers during these troubled times, and how can lawyers essentially make themselves recession-proof?

During the last downturn, when my old firm was doing selective hiring, our Senior Partners knew very clearly what they did and did not want. They were looking for commercially astute, pragmatic lawyers but did not want “kitchen lawyers.” This label is often used to describe lawyers who are solid, reliable, and good at the process side of things but lack dynamism or commercial acumen. In a tough business environment, being a solid lawyer is not enough. Lawyers need to create their own USP so that they can clearly stand out in a more challenging market.

Whilst there will always be a requirement for some “kitchen lawyers” in any firm, they are less critical than more business-minded lawyers in recessionary times. What law firms, therefore, look for are “stand out individuals” who are business savvy and quite obviously head and shoulders above their peers. Here are some of the ways lawyers can show that they are these type of individuals:

  • Demonstrating business development skills

Does not matter what level of lawyer you are, the more you can show an appreciation and application of business development techniques in the approach to your work, the more you will be able to position yourself ahead of others. No matter what your PQE level is, there are initiatives you can take that will contribute to your practice area’s business development. Evidence around client networking skills or, indeed, even cross-practice internal marketing involvement are all positives and can help you with the next step on your career ladder.

  • Mindset/attitude/personality

During a crisis, flexibility is key. Lawyers may temporarily have to be deployed where the client need is greatest. Lawyers who are too fixated on their status or current role are unlikely to have the open-mindedness needed to deal with an unpredictable economic environment. Firms look for positivity and a “can do” approach to client work. It is also important to have an engaging personality with the charisma and emotional intelligence needed to deal with colleagues and clients alike.

  • Exceptional client work/involvement in firm activities outside of practice area

Goes without saying that the quality of client work you have been involved in and contributed to will always be a factor in any hiring decision. For more senior positions, the ability to demonstrate the portability of business and an established network of loyal client contacts will also be key. If you have also participated in firm-wide initiatives or projects, this can also mark you out as someone who stands out from their peers.

  • Broader knowledge of the prevailing business environment 

The law does not operate in a vacuum. If lawyers are looking for new opportunities in private practice, they must be able to convey a reasonable understanding of the prevailing business environment and how this will affect their own practice areas. Being able to identify areas of potential opportunity, even in a very poor economic climate, shows that you are thinking commercially.

Although none of us can say how long the present business climate will last, what we do know is that there will always be a need for good lawyers. Good lawyers are those who can bring that little bit more to the table than their legal knowledge alone.


Chris Lipscomb

Chief Operation Officer

Blue Pencil Legal

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