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January 11, 2022

Law Firms Can’t Just Keep Throwing Money at Growing Talent War: 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market

  • After recovering from the worst of the pandemic, firms face unprecedented battle for talent
  • Despite dramatic compensation hikes, industry sees record turnover; but firms with highest retention tend to have lower compensation growth and higher workloads
  • Firms must “confront the realities of a post-pandemic workforce”

MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL and WASHINGTON, D.C., January 11, 2022 – Having regained their footing after navigating the depths of the pandemic, law firms are facing a growing talent war that threatens to upend the legal industry’s newfound momentum. But the 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market, issued today by the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law and Thomson Reuters Institute, warns: “The traditional law firm response of just throwing more money at the problem is not likely to work as well going forward.”

The report notes the law firm market has rebounded strongly and firms are performing well financially despite the ongoing pandemic. Demand soared in 2021 following a disappointing start, driven primarily by real estate and corporate practices. Litigation is one of the major practice areas that is still below pre-pandemic levels. Firms continue to raise rates aggressively, helping push profitability to record levels.

Retention Dropping Despite Surging Compensation

However, the industry’s recovery has also sown the seeds for a rapidly growing series of cascading problems. The rising demand for legal services is colliding with lawyers’ evolving work preferences in a war for talent that is hitting unprecedented levels. Associate compensation is now surging at double-digit rates – some of the highest levels in more than a decade – driving up costs for firms.

Yet at the same time, retention has plummeted. Attorney turnover has risen to record levels for firms, “edging dangerously close to losing almost one-quarter of their associates in 2021.” The report warns that relying on higher compensation to retain talent may not be sustainable nor particularly effective.

“While firms are understandably seeking a return to ‘normal,’ the reality is that, as we predicted last year, the legal industry emerging from the pandemic is not the same one that entered it,” said James W. Jones, a senior fellow at the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law and the report's lead author. “Much of that change is now happening inside the firms themselves as lawyers reevaluate their careers and life priorities. Thus, the challenge for firms in 2022 will be adapting successfully to these changes, rather than relying on what has worked in the past.”

About More Than Money or Workload

Like many workers, lawyers now have different attitudes and expectations than they had before the pandemic for deciding whether to stay in their current positions or leave.

The report analyzed turnover patterns and found that firms with the lowest turnover are not necessarily those with the highest compensation growth. In fact, they tend to have the lowest compensation growth among firms in the market. These initial results run counter to many previously held notions, as the report concludes that the loyalty lawyers feel to their firms and their willingness to work hard is not simply, or even primarily, driven by compensation.”

The same trend applies to workloads. Attorneys at firms with the lowest turnover billed an average of 51 more hours per year than their counterparts at firms with the highest turnover.

Many lawyers, especially younger ones, may now be giving higher priority to intangible factors, such as feeling appreciated and recognized, as well as work/life balance and mental wellbeing.

Challenges for Firms Beyond Pay Scales

Meanwhile, on the law firm management side, it is also about more than money. The report identifies additional issues that law firms need to tackle, such as hybrid work and operational efficiency.

“There seems to be some emerging consensus that most firms will probably require about three days a week in the office for most lawyers,” the report notes. Firms will have to determine how to manage key areas including equitable assignment of work, mentoring, evaluations, career advancement, and maintaining firm culture in hybrid work environments.

Firms showed “surprising agility” during the pandemic in transitioning to remote work. But the report says they now need to expand that agile approach into other operational areas such as managing support staff and improving financial practices, including billing and collections.

“Much of firms’ successful recovery has been a result of their willingness to adapt quickly and decisively in response to the challenges of the pandemic,” said Paul Fischer, president of Legal Professionals, Thomson Reuters. “Adapting to the rapidly evolving needs of the post-pandemic workforce will require expanding that risk-taking and decisiveness into areas such as operations, support staff, and technology to drive additional efficiency gains.”

The 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market is issued jointly each year by the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law and Thomson Reuters Institute. The report – relying on data from Thomson Reuters – reviews the performance of U.S. law firms and breaks down the factors that drive the need for firms to take a longer-range, more strategic view of their market positions.

Download the 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market at https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en-us/posts/legal/state-of-the-legal-market-2022.

The Thomson Reuters Institute provides insights and thought leadership across the legal, corporate, tax & accounting, and government communities at https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en/institute.html.

The Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law is devoted to promoting interdisciplinary research on the profession informed by an awareness of the dynamics of modern practice; providing students with a sophisticated understanding of the opportunities and challenges of a modern legal career; and furnishing members of the bar, particularly those in organizational decision-making positions, broad perspectives on trends and developments in practice.

Thomson Reuters

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CONTACTS

Jeff McCoy
Thomson Reuters

+1.763.326.4421
jeffrey.mccoy@thomsonreuters.com

Tanya Weinberg
Director of Media Relations
Georgetown Law

+1.202.662.9694
tdw44@georgetown.edu