Insight

Changes and Challenges

As the pandemic ebbs and many people return to the office, midsize law firms in particular must navigate a host of unprecedented questions about costs, culture and client expectations.

Changes, Challenges and Cost of the Pandemic
MN

Megan Norris

June 6, 2022 10:37 AM

THE TWO YEARS of the pandemic have been perhaps the most challenging and transformative period ever for law firms and their clients. Many of these challenges (and some opportunities as well) affecting firms were created or hastened by COVID-19; others were percolating long before 2020. As we determine what post-pandemic operations will look like, one thing is clear: The workplace is forever changed, as are the relationships between clients, attorneys and law firms.

Cost Pressures

What I hear clients saying they need most today from the firms they retain is the same thing they said before 2020: In addition to advice, excellent service, knowing their industry and company and helping them see around corners, they want their attorneys to help them control costs, which requires us to change the way we practice. Cutting rates, which negatively affects our ability to attract and retain talent—and therefore provide the high-level service clients expect and deserve—is not a viable long-term strategy.

Midsize firms especially need to be more efficient to be cost-effective. Some clients are looking for flat fees, for example, and we can make that work in a way that helps them with predictability. If we’re efficient, we’re profitable; if we’re not, we lose our shirts.

More than just how much we bill, though, is how we use our time. Automation can certainly be part of the answer. In some deals, documentation is easy, and non-attorneys can enter particulars into auto-generated forms quickly and cheaply. There’s no magic in the documents; what clients are paying for is their lawyer’s creativity and expertise in structuring the deal. Midsize firms that embrace automation to free up attorney time to provide better client service will survive amid extreme pressure to reduce costs. Firms that can’t do so will not.

The Need for Specialists

Clients are also increasingly interested in hiring attorneys who have specialized their practices. General counsels have become ever more sophisticated, so they want their outside firms to be more insightful and offer more proactive solutions. If there’s a new tax issue, for instance, our clients expect to hear about it from us before they decide what to do. This was not necessarily brought on by the pandemic, though it has become more apparent since March 2020.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, we were meeting internally three days a week to keep our clients informed about up-to-the-minute changes affecting their workplaces and businesses. We weren’t alone in this, but we were quick to the game, forming a COVID-19 rapid-response team early that March. Expectations that we be responsive and forward-thinking have not changed as the pandemic has ebbed. We must build this proactive approach into our regular practice.

A “Sticky” Wicket

Clients used to hire a firm that would then do everything for them: provide litigation services and labor, corporate and intellectual-property counsel and more. If any attorneys on their team left, clients would stay with the firm, trusting it to provide another highly qualified lawyer to deliver excellent service. That’s simply not true anymore. Clients are now more likely to hire an attorney than a firm, and follow their attorney if he or she moves.

The challenge for firms is to hire associates and laterals who will stay put. Someone once told me that there are two types of laterals: one, the type who, on the day they arrive at the firm, you know exactly when they’ll leave—when they get their next best offer. And two, the lawyer who, after a few years, you’ve forgotten ever worked anywhere else. Finding those who will feel like part of the firm family is important. When we’re hiring a lateral, we consider more than their skill set or book of business. We need to bring on people who want to be part of the culture and who want to stay with us.

How do we do that? We used to worry about Michigan competitors trying to woo our attorneys away, but now any firm anywhere in the country can try to hire them. Lawyers can work for a firm in New York but not have to move there. Of course, we can do the same, attracting talent who might not want to move to be near one of our offices. But for everyone we hire because of this flexibility, we lose another. We need “sticky” lawyers.

Big coastal firms have an easy solution to the stickiness problem: They pay a lot. There’s no expectation that the new hire will ever become a partner or even meet the managing partners. They’ll go in, work for a few years, make a bunch of money and then leave. That works for everyone: The lawyer gets some experience and money, and the firm can bring in new people to do the low-level work. That doesn’t work for us. It’s important that the lawyers we invest in will want to stay.

Creating Culture

Midsize firms have the best leverage to create the kind of culture that makes attorneys want to stay, and lawyers and clients alike care about culture. Clients want us to be responsive and care about their businesses. They want to work with nice people. And lawyers want to be part of a firm big enough to support them, but not so big that they don’t have any opportunity to grow. They want their practice-group leaders, the managing partners and the CEO to know who they are and care about their success. That’s our advantage.

Our challenge right now is how to create a culture of collegiality when a lot of our lawyers are not present. On one hand, we have the advantage of flexibility. The pandemic has shown us we can hire lawyers from anywhere, lawyers who might not want to move to where most of our offices are—Michigan, Illinois, Ohio—and it can work out. We have attorneys who, even as we inch our way out of COVID-19, prefer working from home. (Some of them we’ve never met in person, because they joined us during the pandemic.) But there’s a tipping point past which a firm can’t create culture if we’re never together, and we have found that the attorneys who leave us are the ones we never see.

We want our associates especially to benefit from working in-person with one another and our partners. It’s important that we convey what’s in it for everyone when we ask them to come to the office. Most firms need to make decisions about where work can be performed and the effect it has on staffing. Every firm has a certain number of days they want their attorneys and staff physically present—and that number might no longer be five.

While there’s a lot to be said for having people work in the way that makes them most comfortable, there are also so many advantages to in-person work. Each firm must decide how they will accommodate lawyers’ desire to work where they wish while still creating the cultural and environmental benefits that have made us effective and efficient, and our work rewarding.

Building a post-pandemic firm culture is a heavy lift. The qualities that make a good lawyer haven’t changed, but the ways in which we get to know, communicate with, train and engage our attorneys are now very different. The firms that will succeed are the ones that realize that nothing, and everything, has changed.

Megan Norris is the CEO of Miller Canfield, a global law firm headquartered in Detroit, with 18 offices in six countries. Prior to becoming CEO, Norris served as the leader of the firm's Employment and Labor Group, overseeing the firm’s large and active team of dedicated employment and labor attorneys and staff. She also served for eight years on the firm's Board of Managing Directors, the last six years as chair.

Related Articles

Remote Controls


by Cynthia Morgan Ohlenforst

How law firms, lawyers and taxing authorities must adapt to remote work

Law Firms Adapt to Remote Work

Forging Bonds, Building Business


by Crystal L. Howard and Lizl Leonardo

As disorienting and occasionally frightening as the pandemic has been, it has also forced lawyers to find innovative new ways to stay connected and do business.

Pandemic Sparks Innovative Ways of Conducting

The Employment Endemic


by Meredith Caiafa and Sarah Greene

The pandemic has had far-reaching effects on employment law since it officially took hold in 2020, but the litigation and lawmaking surrounding it are mutating faster than the variants. Here’s how lawmakers and businesses can keep up.

Employment Law During COVID-19

New Sheriff in Town on ESG


by Patricia Brown Holmes

Various regulatory agencies within the Biden Administration are stepping up enforcement of corporate malfeasance in the ever-trendy ESG space.

ESG Enforcement in the Corporate Environment

Follow the Money


by Rachel F. Sifuentes

Women are the future of fintech—but in the here and now, they’re still being underserved in an industry otherwise marked by explosive growth. Here’s why that must change.

Women and the Future of Fintech

Privacy Practice


by Casey Waughn

Data protection is all the rage among tech companies and state, national (and even transnational) governments alike. Is it a passing fad or here to stay? And how should businesses and groups of all sizes handle compliance with a blizzard of new laws?

Data Protection Prompt New Privacy Laws

The Upcycle Conundrum


by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

The Compensation Situation


by Liz S. Washko

Pay discrimination has been outlawed for decades. Yet the issue has taken on new salience in recent years. Here’s what to know about compensation equity—and where the legal risk lies for companies.

Pay Discrimination and Equity in Legal Indust

Carrying the Torch While Raising the Bar


by Sharen L. Nocella

Catherine Pyune McEldowney makes waves as one of the few Asian-American women at the pinnacle of a U.S. law firm.

Asian-American Representation in Law

Announcing the 7th Annual Women in the Law Publication


by Best Lawyers

The 7th Annual Women in the Law publication is a celebration of all the female legal talent across the country, honoring every woman listed in The Best Lawyers in America and Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America.

Honoring Female Lawyers in the United States

We Are Women, We Are Fearless


by Deborah S. Chang and Justin Smulison

Athea Trial Lawyers is a female owned and operated law firm specializing in civil litigation, catastrophic energy, wrongful death and product liability.

Athea Trial Law Female Leadership and Success

Trending Top Five: Critical Corporate Components for 2022


by Justin Smulison

It’s no longer “business as usual” for most of Corporate America. With a growing list of challenges facing the legal and financial health of many companies, we talked to several major General Counsel about the biggest areas in which businesses should remain vigilant.

Corporate Advice From General Counsel

Employment Alterations


by Ariel Beverly

As corporate America continues to grapple with pandemic-induced employment shifts, companies are still facing wage-hour compliance issues. Here’s some advice for navigating a post-pandemic work world.

Post-Pandemic Employment Difficulties

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers: The Corporate Law and Commercial Litigation Issue


by Best Lawyers

The first edition of Best Lawyers: The Corporate Law and Commercial Litigation Issues features thought leadership articles from attorneys around the nation, as well as listings in more than 70 practice areas.

Corporate and Commercial Issue

Measuring Success by Results


by John Fields

Recognized Best Lawyers®* recipient Joseph F. Brophy on how his Firm determines success.

Measuring Firm Success

Texas "Lawyer of the Year" 2022


by Best Lawyers

Charla Truett is honored as 2022 "Lawyer of the Year" in Texas for Immigration Law.

Texas "Lawyer of the Year" 2022

Trending Articles

The Real Camille: An Interview with Johnny Depp’s Lawyer Camille Vasquez


by Rebecca Blackwell

Camille Vasquez, a young lawyer at Brown Rudnick, sat down with Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer to talk about her distinguished career, recently being named partner and what comes next for her.

Camille Vasquez in office

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard: The Best Lawyers Honorees Behind the Litigation


by Gregory Sirico

Best Lawyers takes a look at the recognized legal talent representing Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in their ongoing defamation trial.

Lawyers for Johnny Depp and Amber Heard

Announcing The Best Lawyers in The United Kingdom™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from the United Kingdom.

The Best Lawyers in The United Kingdom 2023

Announcing The Best Lawyers in France™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from France.

Blue, white and red strips

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Germany™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Germany.

Black, red and yellow stripes

Education by Trial: Cultivating Legal Expertise in the Courtroom


by Margo Pierce

The intricacies of complex lawsuits require extensive knowledge of the legal precedent. But they also demand a high level of skill in every discipline needed to succeed at trial, such as analyzing technical reports and deposing expert witnesses.

Cultivating Legal Expertise in the Courtroom

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Belgium™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Belgium.

Black, yellow and red stripes

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in France


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms, including our inaugural Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch recipients.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in France

We Are Women, We Are Fearless


by Deborah S. Chang and Justin Smulison

Athea Trial Lawyers is a female owned and operated law firm specializing in civil litigation, catastrophic energy, wrongful death and product liability.

Athea Trial Law Female Leadership and Success

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect


by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller

Destiny Fulfilled


by Sara Collin

Was Angela Reddock-Wright destined to become a lawyer? It sure seems that way. Yet her path was circuitous. This accomplished employment attorney, turned mediator, arbitrator and ADR specialist nonpareil discusses her career, the role of attorneys in society, the new world of post-pandemic work and why new Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson represents the future.

Interview with Lawyer Angela Reddock-Wright

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in Germany


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms, including our inaugural Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch recipients.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in Germany

U.K. Introduces Revisions to Right-to-Work Scheme and Immigration Rules


by Gregory Sirico

Right-to-Work Scheme and Immigration Rules in

Famous Songs Unprotected by Copyright Could Mean Royalties for Some


by Michael B. Fein

A guide to navigating copyright claims on famous songs.

Can I Sing "Happy Birthday" in Public?

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom


by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?