Why Major Markets May See An Exodus Of Associates

By Aebra Coe
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Law360 (July 8, 2020, 7:50 PM EDT) -- The coronavirus pandemic is driving demand among associates to move away from the large legal markets like New York in favor of living and working in places like Denver, Charlotte and Detroit, where the cost of living is lower and family is often closer, according to legal recruiters.

Although not many law firms are hiring, the desire among candidates to shift to a smaller market is there in spades, according to recruiters who spoke to Law360, and many said there could be a good deal of movement once firms do resume normal hiring.

Associates are also thinking about moving internally by relocating to another office, or working partially or completely remotely, within their current law firms, the recruiters said.

In essence, a number of associates are exploring all options that will allow them to move away from the largest legal markets, including longtime legal mecca New York City. Here is a look at how the pandemic is motivating that desire to head somewhere smaller.

The Potential for New Ways of Working

Soon after the pandemic hit, a number of young professionals living in Manhattan, Los Angeles and San Francisco who had made the transition to working remotely moved out of those cities temporarily, often into parents' homes, to weather the pandemic near family and in less densely populated locations that rely less on public transportation.

Such a move could be driven by the perceived safety of living somewhere less hard hit by the virus, by the convenience of being near family who can help with child care or simply the desire to be near loved ones during a difficult time.

Law firm associates were no different, according to Michelle Fivel, a partner in the associate practice group at legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa.

"What I'm seeing is a lot of people [in both Los Angeles and New York] going to lesser populated areas — going to stay with family, taking advantage of family second homes, doing cost-effective rentals — but still working remotely," Fivel said. "The thought was, if you're working remotely, you're not getting together face to face, and it doesn't matter if you're in Manhattan or Denver."

A number of those associates are now wondering whether living closer to family or in locations that are less densely populated is going to be possible after their firms begin the transition back to the office.

Fivel said that at some firms, associates who want to keep working remotely even after the pandemic subsides will be able to do so.

But more often, she said, firms will likely still require face-to-face interactions at least once a week for things like client meetings and group meetings.

"I think a lot of associates are going to wait and see whether there is movement on the part of management. I don't know that we will see people working remotely in small markets as a huge trend," she said.

Megan Penrod, a recruiter in Texas, said she agrees, and that lateral movement will likely result when management won't budge on associates' desires to relocate.

"I still believe we are quite some time from being in a market where a BigLaw associate can relocate to a lower cost of living area and work entirely remotely without any office presence, but it wouldn't surprise me if in five to 10 years we start to see opportunities for that," Penrod said.

Others, though, like San Francisco Bay-based recruiter Daren Wein, say the need to be near powerful partners who train, mentor and pass work to associates remains too important for it to make sense for associates looking to make partner to head to a city where they won't have face time with those partners.

"The fact that people can do work remotely doesn't mean that they will get that work once they leave town," Wein said. "I have heard many, many stories of people who have left their longtime office but stayed with their firm and found the transition difficult because 'out of sight, out of mind.' Perhaps that is less pronounced right now since everyone is out of sight, but that will not last forever."

Lateral Moves Are More Likely

In the absence of the option of keeping their current jobs and working where they want, associates looking to leave the larger markets will likely make a lateral move to either a regional firm or a large firm with an office in their intended city, experts said.

Nancy Newman, a recruiter in Michigan, said her current outreach from out-of-state lawyers in some ways resembles what she saw from nonresident lawyers who wanted to return home to Michigan after 9/11.

"In both situations, world circumstances are compelling lawyers to consider relocating to be closer to family. This is especially pronounced when attorneys have young children or aging parents and want to be closer to family," Newman said.

In addition to personal reasons for moving, she says associates working in BigLaw firms in the major markets are also drawn to the lower cost of living in Detroit and Grand Rapids and the opportunity to be a "big fish in a small pond" in a regional law firm.

Ken Young, who places attorneys in law firms in the Southeast U.S. and is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, said he is seeing a similar appetite among young attorneys to move to his area of the country.

"[There are] many firmwide hiring freezes at present," Young said. "But I do get calls from BigLaw associates in the largest cities wanting to move to the Southeast for green grass, the ability to get outside, no need to ride a subway."

And cost of living is also a factor, he said, with lower taxes and the ability to buy a home in a city like Charlotte with significantly more space than something at the same price in Manhattan or San Francisco.

"A lot of these firms now have offices in places like Charlotte. If you can do high-level finance work in a city like Charlotte, maybe there's less allure to go to New York City," Young said.

Allie Fennell, a senior director at Lateral Link in Atlanta, said that she definitely sees increased interest among associates in living somewhere they can have a house and yard, especially during the pandemic.

"That has always been part of the calculus when considering a move from a major market to a place like Charlotte or Raleigh, but I think that's become even more of a deciding factor of making that move than it ever has been," Fennell said.

--Editing by Brian Baresch and Kelly Duncan.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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