Coronavirus & Changes to Lateral Attorney Hiring - Part I  

Vault | 04.06.20

Originally published on | April 6, 2020pexels-photo-380768

In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked major changes in the legal industry—from law schools delaying OCI to firms furloughing lawyers and cutting salaries to lawyers and law students working virtually. But how has COVID-19 affected the lateral hiring market? Vault spoke with a group of legal recruiting professionals to find out their thoughts:

Sean Burke - Founding Partner, Whistler Partners

Becca Burke - Managing Director, Whistler Parters

In this first installment of our lateral hiring Q&A, we explore the recruiters’ observations on how the market has been changing in recent weeks, which practice areas are in demand, and how lateral candidates can stand out during this difficult time. Read on for their insights.

Can you share your observations on how the job market has been changing in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak?


Sean Burke circleSean Burke and Becca Blank: Observations! Definitely all we can offer is frankly, many employers still don’t know what their numbers will look like for the rest of the year. Honestly, for much of the past couple weeks, employers have mostly either hit the “pause” button for their hiring processes or shifted interviews to video. A portion are in a holding pattern of “wait and see” how things play out, while others are proceeding with caution and looking at longer time lines. This week, we saw more firms announcing definitive hiring freezes. 

At the partner level, the deals involving partners who had offers (or were close to getting an offer) are still moving forward.


Have you noticed an increased demand in any practice areas and/or a decreased demand for certain areas?


Sean Burke and Becca Blank: It’s no surprise that firms with bankruptcy and restructuring practices are gearing up in preparation for the inevitable surge of work in this area. In the past week, we have seen new searches open at all levels in this practice area. And, it’s a practice that does lend itself to pivots from certain other corporate and litigation practitioners—those who want to stay busy with sophisticated work over the coming period may want to consider opportunities there.

As for pivoting, Whistler is lucky that we’ve got a couple of great recruiters on the team who are well versed in the practice area to lead our clients’ searches and advise candidates!

Mat Martin circleOur own Mat Martin was a bankruptcy practitioner himself in his past life, and his father was a federal bankruptcy judge. So when we work on this area, we’re not chasing trends—we actually have existing expertise!

In other areas, Whistler is known for our deep connections in the tech space. While the global economy is on lockdown, tech companies in the business of remote work and streaming are seeing unprecedented highs. Demand for experienced tech transactions lawyers continues to be strong.

Life sciences and health care are obviously right in the center of it as well. Our clients in this industry haven’t slowed their hiring at all. And if the clients are busy, the law firms (and practice areas) representing those clients will remain busy as well.


What can lateral candidates do to make their applications most competitive during this time? 


Sean Burke and Becca Blank: It’s always important to stand out regardless of the timing, but it’s especially important these days. Right now, firms are really paying attention only to applications for focused openings. The days of opportunistic hires of general corporate associates without a focused need are behind us. So it’s not only submitting the right application, but submitting the right application for the right job at the right firm. It’s that specific in the current market.

Becca Blank circ le

That said, firms are being prudent, but it doesn’t escape them that this is also a time of opportunity to acquire top talent, especially at more senior levels. The answer is, to be most competitive right now, play the right game.

There are still some associate job openings, and not just in bankruptcy.  Unlike in-house, where a new hire is thought of on some level as a “cost center,” a law firm hires an attorney to make a profit. If a law firm desperately needs a specialist attorney like a tech transactions mid-level to replace someone who went in-house, they can’t fill that need by switching an attorney from M&A. They will still need to hire someone. 

Knowing where hidden opportunities lie is the key here. We’re in the business of information—and we can tell you there are firms who have frozen hiring across the board regardless of who you are, and there are firms who want to hear about rising stars planning for the long term.


Stay tuned for the second installment of our interview with these legal recruiting professionals, including their insights on pursuing a lateral switch now and best practices for video interviewing.


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