The current hiring environment for law firms, like in most industries, is complicated. A few firms have found new ways to move head, while keeping some features that work.
The pandemic has created seismic changes in lots of industries — from yacht clubs to fast-food and homebuilding to business travel. The law sector, especially how firms in the region hire and retain top talent, has likewise been on a turbulent pandemic ride.
“Lawsuits are still progressing,” says Shannon Puopolo, chair of the hiring committee and shareholder at Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt P.A. in Fort Myers. “People are still having legal disputes.”
So much so the firm has done a significant amount of hiring in the pandemic. Since March 2020, the firm has hired 17 new attorneys for a total of 62 now — a 38% increase. While a number of those were to fill holes left by retirees, Puopolo, a Business Observer 40-under-40 winner in 2020, says there hasn’t been a slowdown in business. “We still had to meet client demand,” she says.
The 97-year-old company is one of several law firms in the region that prides itself on keeping attorneys around after they’ve been hired. Henderson Franklin employees enjoy programs and events throughout the year, monthly meetings and a mentorship program. That program is namely helpful for newer attorneys to have questions answered, work reviewed and the opportunity to shadow a seasoned attorney, generally a partner. “It’s a really great place to work,” says Puopolo.
Word must be getting out: the firm has seen a recent uptick in applications for its Summer Associate Program, an entry-level track for law school students statewide. The firm accepts three to four applicants each summer. This year, it sorted through 300 applicants.
Another firm in the region that's both brought on new attorneys and is in the market for others is Tampa-based Trenam. Like Henderson Franklin and other firms, Trenam has made some adjustments to how it recruits and retains attorneys. For one, it didn't offer a summer program this past summer. (The firm supported one student over the summer, but it wasn’t an official program.) “We weren’t certain how the pandemic would play out,” says Richard Pollock, the firm's chief people/talent officer.
The firm's summer program has been a staple since the 1970s or ‘80s. “It’s been a very constant thing except for this year,” says Pollock. While the firm still had a program in 2020, given associates had been recruited in 2019, it only lasted during the month of July and it wasn’t what the firm wanted it to be. The students didn’t have the same experience — more attorneys were working from home, so lunch outings weren’t a thing, replaced by Zoom meetings.
In a normal year, Trenam brings on two summer associates for 10 weeks. Associates are interviewed and chosen following their first year at law school. The program takes place between their second and third years of school. Then if it's a good fit, the students are extended an offer for employment that starts the fall after graduation and the Bar exam. “We hire summer associates with the intention of making an offer,” says Pollock.
At Henderson Franklin, meanwhile, hiring from its summer program comes down to what the students’ interests are and how that aligns with the firm’s needs.
Both firms found positive aspects of hiring attorneys in the pandemic, despite the challenge of virtual interviews. At Henderson Franklin, for example, virtual recruiting allowed the firm to expand its application pool. “We’ve been able to hire outside of the area,” says Puopolo.
Trenam has hired attorneys from other states, but typically the applicants are intending to relocate to the area. On the flip side, the pandemic allowed Trenam to enhance something it's been doing that's ahead of its time: it has allowed employees to work remotely, when appropriate, long before COVID-19.
One example is a legal assistant who moved to Denver. That employee has been living there for four years now. If something needs to be done in the office, it’s a well-oiled machine of switching work. One employee located here will complete the in-person work and the legal assistant will pick up some extra work from the person helping out. “It’s worked very well,” says Pollock. "There's certainly been more openness about remote work."