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Law360 (March 11, 2021, 4:32 PM EST) -- Atlanta legal recruiters say the coronavirus pandemic is driving demand among attorneys for jobs in the Peach State capital, particularly at the associate level, where base salaries are starting to match those offered by top firms in the country's largest cities.
Recruiters say opportunities abound for lawyers of all types in certain high-demand practice areas at Atlanta's law firms, including health care, real estate, cybersecurity, payments, intellectual property, insurance and securities. Young attorneys raised and educated in the South who left for job opportunities in bigger markets increasingly want to return home, and to do so earlier in their careers — and they don't necessarily have to sacrifice top paychecks to do it, with a handful of international firms promising to start associate pay at $190,000.
Even at the partner level, lateral movement has been on the rise during the pandemic. The Atlanta market — traditionally seen as a bit insular, with much lateral movement coming through existing connections rather than traditional recruiting — is starting to see a shift as national and global law firms build out Atlanta offices and practice teams that compete with longtime local market leaders. And a year of remote work has opened more possibilities than ever for Atlanta partners.
What's lagging in activity is the in-house market, where there's less demand and less movement to and from firms, recruiters say.
"The pandemic sort of forced the hand of law firms, it made them engage in an experiment as it relates to physical location," Major Lindsey & Africa managing director W. DeVane Tidwell, who oversees the Southeast for the global recruiter's partner practice group, said. "And so there's a lot more flexibility, at least more talk about having flexibility."
Associates Accelerated Their Atlanta Interest
This February was the busiest month in Rebecca Glatzer's seven years of recruiting. A managing director at Major Lindsey & Africa in Atlanta and part of the recruiting firm's associate practice group covering the Southeast, Glatzer said the pandemic has fueled strong interest from Southeast-raised-and-educated attorneys working in larger markets who want to return home.
While it's not unusual for out-of-state associates to want to return home, the pandemic has accelerated that particularly for early-career attorneys, she said.
"Normally I'm hearing from third-, fourth-, fifth- or sixth-year associates, a little bit midlevel to the more senior side of it, and now I'm hearing from first- and second-years," Glatzer said. "It's an interesting phenomenon. It's all kind of COVID-based, this huge surge I'm getting in the people that want to relocate."
She said the pandemic has made it harder to place junior associates, because they haven't had a chance to be mentored over the past year in the same way that they would have been had they been in the office. And the health crisis has in some ways depleted new recruits' enjoyment of being at a firm, due to isolation safety requirements, so more are looking for new options closer to home.
Glatzer said the lateral market is also being shaken up by a couple of international law firms new to Atlanta that say they'll pay their associates there the same base salary as those on "national market" rates.
That means in those firms, which Glatzer declined to publicly reveal, a first-year associate can make $190,000 a year in Atlanta like their colleagues in Chicago or Washington, D.C., rather than settle for around $165,000.
"That raises some eyebrows ... this is not typically the way things kind of go down here," Glatzer said. "These are top 50 Am Law firms who can afford to do this, so you can't paint with a broad brush and say this is a new Atlanta phenomenon ... [but] this is sort of a brand new thing that's happening."
Glatzer said it seems as though the uptick in associate recruiting will continue through spring.
Early Pandemic Freezes Thawed for Late 2020 Partner Moves
When the coronavirus brought Atlanta to a halt in March 2020, firms cautiously froze hiring, cut salaries and shed staff in anticipation of a slowdown in work. Lateral partner movement also waned.
But most law firms in Atlanta fared better than expected, realizing toward the end of 2020 they had the means to replenish cuts and start the new year with hires.
Legal services overall stayed strong compared to other segments of the economy, especially in litigation, though transactional work took the biggest hit, Tidwell said.
"From a budgetary standpoint, many firms were surprisingly successful," he said.
Bonnie M. Youn, a legal recruiting manager at The RMN Agency, said even during the pandemic, Atlanta law firms were doing "a lot of behind the scenes opportunistic maneuvering" with respect to laterals, resulting in a level of available talent not seen in several years.
"In the last quarter [of 2020], our placements equaled what we did in 2019," she said.
Cybersecurity and technology experts are also highly sought after, particularly for litigation, and that's only been exacerbated by the pandemic, Lucas Group managing partner Whitney H. Worthington said. Insurance is another practice area that's been bolstered by the health and economic crisis.
"There are definitely firms that are being very opportunistic right now, acquisitive," Worthington said. "We're hearing again from firms wanting to add to certain practice areas, wanting to add higher-level attorneys, counsel and partner level, who don't necessarily have any portable clients, and I think that always speaks volumes of the financial health and stability of the firm."
In-House Movement Remains Slow
In-house legal departments haven't seen the same demand as law firms, with the pandemic increasing demand only in areas like real estate, privacy and corporate securities, said Jonathan Wylie, a managing director in Major Lindsey & Africa's in-house counsel recruiting team based in Atlanta.
Specialized counsel are needed for the city's many financial technology and payment companies, he said, as well as the growing number of small Atlanta businesses choosing to go public through a special purpose acquisition company in order to bypass the traditional route of an initial public offering.
But in general, there's less demand from Atlanta attorneys to leave the law firm life, Wylie said. He said law firms hired fewer associates than normal during the pandemic and that firms are generally doing a better job of looking after and retaining their associates, creating less competition for partner positions and therefore, the "desire to jump in-house is not as strong."
"We've had this conversation with clients over the last few years, that it's just been harder and harder to pull people out of their law firm to get them to go to a company," Wylie said. "It used to be the case, five or six years ago, that if you had a job in-house and you were calling people at law firms to try and get them to move, you would make 100 calls and you'd probably get 75 callbacks because everybody wanted to go in-house."
Remote Work Could Continue to Drive Atlanta Demand
With Zoom hearings fast becoming the norm for attorneys, many are wondering why they're not billing 2,000 hours a year from more comfortable and affordable surroundings, recruiters say. And that's made Atlanta an option where it may not have been one before.
A dollar goes further in Atlanta than in most coastal cities and its status is cementing as a logistics hub for the South, expanding opportunities.
"You can buy a house here without a million- or multimillion-dollar mortgage, you can raise your kids here with room to breathe, you have great weather and the unique cultural aspects of Atlanta," Youn said. "And, of course, there's a ton of corporate money that's coming here."
Taylor English Duma LLP is one Atlanta firm actively recruiting out-of-state partners to join the remote business model it started four years ago to avoid high overheads associated with expensive office space. Christopher "Chris" T. Wilson, who oversees the remote partner program, said it comprises 36 partners in about 10 different states and he hopes to add 20 or so more partners each year.
Tidwell said the pandemic has also been an eye-opener for firms as they start to consider recruiting partners in locations where they don't have an office. Plenty of outside firms are also including Atlanta in their expansion plans, he said.
And as the pandemic jolted people out of their comfort zones, partners not previously inclined to change their routine might be willing to now. Morris Manning & Martin LLP managing partner Simon R. Malko expects that could increase lateral movement in Atlanta.
"I do think you have people who never could have conceived of practicing law any place other than the office they knew, driving to the parking space they knew, eating lunch at the place they knew, and because of the pandemic they were forced out of that routine," Malko said. "And now that they see that they can do what they do successfully anywhere, maybe they're more inclined to consider other options."
--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.
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