After a challenging year across the legal industry, seven leaders of midsize law firms talked to Law360 about their perspective on how MidLaw firms fared in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, what their takeaways from the year have been, and what opportunities they see on the horizon at the dawn of 2021.
The Biggest Change to Come Out of 2020
Most MidLaw leaders said that one of the biggest developments in 2020 was the widespread adoption and integration of technology, particularly videoconferencing and other tools for working and collaborating remotely, which they expect will outlast the pandemic.
“When this started, I believed that when it ended, we’d go back to working the way we did. But I also thought we would probably go back in the summer of this year,” Ronald Shechtman, managing partner of Pryor Cashman LLP, told Law360. “I think I was wrong on both counts.”
Melody Eagan, managing partner of Lightfoot Franklin & White LLC, expressed a similar sentiment.
“From remote meetings and depositions to virtual proceedings, technology has had a phenomenal impact,” she said. “Firms are revisiting how they operate, balancing remote work with the importance of in-person training, mentoring and collaboration. I expect this shift to have lasting implications as clients and firms seek continued efficiencies into the future.”
Sangeeta Shah, CEO of Brooks Kushman PC, said she believes that midsize firms like hers benefited from being smaller and more agile, meaning they were able to put technology infrastructure into place faster and pivot to focus on client needs.
And technology may have also helped some firms get a foot into new doors.
“I think the rise of virtual meetings has really helped firms of our size compete for larger projects, where in the past we may not have had the opportunity to be considered for the work,” said Irving S. Firman, managing shareholder of Tucker Arensberg PC.
While there may be growing pains, firm leaders indicated that, ultimately, they think the greater integration of technology has improved productivity.
“By adopting technology … I think we’ve seen a lot more efficiency and cohesion with respect to the team,” said Raines Feldman LLP’s managing partner Jonathan Littrell. “I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the same level that we were, where everybody is in the office five days a week.”
COVID-19 Triumphs — and Concerns
Beyond just technology, the effects of the pandemic were felt unevenly across MidLaw firms, law firm leaders said
“So many firms found themselves in such very different places depending on what their portfolio of clients looked like,” said Mark E. Reagan, managing shareholder at health care boutique Hooper Lundy & Bookman PC.
For Hooper Lundy, he said, it was a busy year that underscored the importance of their clients’ work. But for firms serving other industries, it was sometimes tough.
However, most firm leaders said that they were proud of the way their firms handled the unprecedented times. Several cited clear and open communication with attorneys and staff as key to that success.
“While I have always promoted transparency in firm leadership, transparent communication has been of utmost importance in 2020,” Eagan said. “As we navigated the challenges of the past year, we believed it critical that all employees understood the state of our operations, how the firm was performing financially, and their importance as a member of our team, not only to address fears but also maintain our unique, cohesive culture.”
Dana Rosenfeld, managing partner of Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, noted that “Above all, constant communication with the Kelley Drye community has been key, including daily communications focusing on everything from parental and mental health resources and client successes to operational initiatives and personal milestones such as births of children and wedding celebrations,” she said.
Still, leaders said that some peer firms may not survive the pandemic and associated upheaval — or won’t do so as independent entities. Shectman said Pryor Cashman has seen an increase in firms expressing interest in a possible merger, though it has so far not entertained any of them.
“I think we’re going to see a broad range in the measures of performance [among midsize firms], and I think we’re going to see some firms disappear,” he said.
Opportunities for Growth
Practice areas that have been in high demand, such as employment, trusts and estates, compliance and litigation, will continue to be hot in 2021, leaders predicted.
“I believe that the pandemic is the key driver to the legal profession right now,” Firman said. “I think that we have seen and will continue to see an increase in the areas of litigation, employment matters and creditors’ rights matters. Also, merger and acquisition activity has been consistent throughout the year, and I would expect that to continue.”
Eagan said she expects the pandemic will keep litigation boutique Lightfoot busy well into the new year.
“We already have seen an increase in certain types of cases related to COVID, including business interruption claims, class actions related to [Small Business Administration] loans, employment matters and real estate disputes,” she said. “As we observed during the recession of 2008, when times get tough, case filings do tend to rise.”
Others saw opportunity in the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who is likely to have new priorities when it comes to both regulation and enforcement.
“With a new presidential administration, clients will seek assistance navigating changes in a broad range of regulatory and legislative practices, spanning international trade, environmental, energy, employment, privacy, advertising and communications, among others,” Rosenfeld said.
Looking beyond current events, however, Reagan said that he considers one of the biggest opportunities for MidLaw firms to be the impact remote work will have on the ability to hire employees across the country.
Instead of restricting its search to a few cities, Reagan said, Hooper Lundy can now seek out great talent wherever it is found, which will help the firm grow in the long term.
“The experience we’ve had further demonstrates that if you’re in the talent business — which law firms are in — then barriers that some firms have looked at in terms of location of practice may not be part of things going forward,” he said.
Past Is Present
Even with vaccines being rolled out, the effects of the pandemic will likely be felt throughout 2021.
“COVID could be over in two days, and effects of this would likely still be felt in 12 months,” Littrell noted.
Other trends that rocked the industry in 2020, such as a focus on diversity, will also probably follow firms into the new year, leaders said.
“Clients will be increasingly looking to firms that can adapt to the changing paradigms and provide value-added services that align with the client’s core goals, in particular when it comes to effectuating meaningful change on diversity, equity and inclusion at the organization and community level,” Shah predicted.
As coronavirus vaccines become more available, leaders do expect that more attorneys will be heading into the office later in the year.
“As the promise of a vaccine hopefully becomes a reality, I see the second half of 2021 evolving into more of a hybrid work model,” said Rosenfeld. “I also anticipate that clients will continue seeking trusted advisors to help manage an increasing volume of legal and business challenges.”
Overall, MidLaw leaders expected they will need to think creatively about things like hiring, training new attorneys and maintaining firm culture. However, they were largely optimistic about how the year might unfold. Clients might be cautious early on, but things would improve as 2021 moves forward, they predicted.
“I’m pretty confident that our clients are going to need us as much as they have in 2020,” Reagan said.