I was among the ranks of lawyers looking for a job in March 2020, having decided to relocate permanently to South Florida after moving back home for a judicial clerkship ending in the fall. And, at the time, it felt like the only thing to do was be proactive, and be patient.
Despite virtual classrooms and graduations, a twice delayed and remotely proctored bar exam, and other frustrating upheavals to the expected normalcy during the last year of law school, perhaps the most daunting and stressful changes faced by third-year law students last year were those wrought on the job search process and the start of new employment. An overwhelming sense of unknowing descended on the process of applying for and starting new jobs, both for recent grads and for other lawyers making a career move. I was among the ranks of lawyers looking for a job in March 2020, having decided to relocate permanently to South Florida after moving back home for a judicial clerkship ending in the fall. And, at the time, it felt like the only thing to do was be proactive, and be patient.
Relationships Matter in an Uncertain Environment
When the coronavirus struck, job seekers were trying to obtain concrete information about possible employment—information that in many cases did not exist as prospective employers scrambled to keep pace with evolving news about the virus. Law offices were implementing austerity measures and evaluating how to approach hiring—many while transitioning to remote work or a hybrid work-from-home system. A survey conducted by the National Association for Law Placement, Inc indicated that nearly half of law schools reported that 2020 graduates had had post-graduate employment offers rescinded. Another report issued by the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Thomson Reuters Institute, indicated that 40% of law firms nationwide reduced fee earner salaries and 11% discharged fee earners altogether. This was not the predictable world of on-campus interviews and publicly posted job descriptions of sedate and stable years past. Still, some aspects about landing a legal job had not changed: a workmanlike approach to sending out resumes and word-of-mouth communication about potential jobs remained invaluable.
Last fall, Forbes reported that referrals for all jobs (legal and nonlegal) have a 50% chance of getting an interview, and, while referrals account for only 7% of the applicants, they comprise some 40% of new hires. It was all some job seekers could do to contact friends and colleagues for information, send many more emails and applications than expected, and at times just be patient about how things would play out. For my part, I learned about open positions at a number of small boutiques in Miami, including one at Podhurst Orseck, my current work home, after reaching out to friends from high school, law school and my clerkships. I participated in no fewer than nine interviews with nearly every one of the Podhurst partners—most over Zoom—to ensure I would mesh with the tenacious and familial culture that the firm guards fiercely even 50-plus years after its founding.
Making the Most of It
The need for patience and adaptability would extend to a recent legal hire’s first few days on the job at a new and remote workplace. While between 70% to 90% of law firms primarily used traditional office spaces before the pandemic, as reported in the 2019 ABA Tech Report, by early April 2020, that number had shrunk to 12%, with 40% transitioning to working totally remotely and the remainder adopting a hybrid system. For new hires, the pandemic compounded the recognized challenges of working from home with the challenges of acclimating to a foreign workplace that you could not, in many cases, physically enter. As Podhurst had officially closed its offices due to the pandemic, I started my new job there sitting in the same chair in the same makeshift office in my home, but suddenly was doing different kinds of work with colleagues I did not yet know. As with many new hires, weekly check-ins and periodic officewide Zooms quickly helped me get my bearings and feel welcome and supported within my team. And, while virtual meet-ups cannot replace the real thing, they can be intimate in a different way: after all, you are bringing colleagues into the ordinarily private space of your home and being invited to theirs, commiserating when a repairman comes to fix a broken AC or waving at family members in the background.
Challenges Still Present
Despite these positive aspects of the work-from-home setup, it has not been without difficulties that have perhaps disproportionately affected women. According to studies of heterosexual-couple households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and Lean In and McKinsey & Company over the last year, working women report spending more time than their partners on child-rearing and household chores. This has in turn led to reports of increased stress at work and many mothers considering reducing work hours or even leaving the workforce. Legal employers assessing the boons and banes of the last year should take stock of the ways in which a tolerance for alternative working arrangements can increase cost-effectiveness and work-life balance, even as they remain mindful of the uneven impact that new measures can have on women and other subsets of their lawyers and employees.
As the availability of the vaccine increases and the world gradually returns to normal, new uncertainties are already arising: Will lawyers come into the office five days a week? Will we still have in-person meetings with clients? Law school graduates would do well to learn from the things that have remained stable and important over the past year—leveraging professional networks and doggedly sending out applications even in the face of rejection and delay, but also facing the inevitable uncertainties that come your way with as much equanimity as you can muster.
Christina H. Martinez is an attorney at Podhurst Orseck whose practice includes trial and appellate work.