Flexibility lures young lawyers in highly competitive market for Canadian legal talent

Firms are using the return to the office as an opportunity to say they have changed

Flexibility lures young lawyers in highly competitive market for Canadian legal talent

Law firms across Canada planning a gradual return to offices are not only navigating evolving infection numbers and safety protocols but must also deal with another challenge: a shortage of lawyers.

In-demand associates with experience are looking for flexibility and quality training, and they often have the leverage to challenge assumptions of how offices should work, regardless of what the senior partners want.

But this does not mean that young lawyers are clamouring to work entirely remotely.

“I have heard from people who have had their first year as an associate or their articling year at home [and], it’s been really tough,” says Meaghan Loughry, a recruitment associate at The Counsel Network. “They don’t feel like they got the same experience that their peers have had. And they don’t feel like they forged the same relationships.”

Loughry says that she has seen a massive demand for corporate transactional, M&A and securities expertise since the beginning of 2021, and demand for litigators has also seen an uptick. US firms have been plucking Canadian lawyers with “astronomical” signing bonuses, creating upward momentum for associates to move from mid-market to large national firms.

Loughry’s observations are evident in the numbers. In the United States, the large law firm market saw a substantial recovery in the second quarter from the economic impact of the last year, Thomson Reuters recently reported. Demand for law firm services for the quarter was higher than pre-pandemic levels. Canada sees similar trends.

And expectations for flexibility have ballooned in both Canada and the US for all lawyers. According to a recent global survey of 2,000 lawyers also conducted by Thomson Reuters, including 473 in Canada, lawyers in this country would prefer to work two days a week at home on average. Before the pandemic, those surveyed preferred to spend 0.6 days a week working remotely.

Canadian Lawyer surveyed several Canadian law firms about their return-to-work policies in the summer, and few had developed an approach in great detail. However, a consistent response was that they preferred the flexible hybrid model.

“No one wants to face time requirement,” says Loughry.

Meritas, a global law firm network including several Canadian firms, recently surveyed its members about which changes caused by the pandemic are likely to stick around for the long term.

Over 52 per cent of firms expect to operate with a hybrid model, combining remote and in-office work, at least for the foreseeable future. Some expect this to be a temporary solution, but more expect to stay hybrid long-term.

Meritas President Sona Pancholy says although the pandemic forced firms to adapt initially, “they then were rather quickly able to find the tools and the resources — both technology [and] human capital — [and] an understanding of how to be efficient and effective in a remote environment.”

Sona Pancholy

Luca Citton is chair of the Meritas Canadian management committee and president of Boughton Law in Vancouver. He says although young lawyers were always comfortable collaborating remotely, it “would have otherwise been unacceptable to more senior lawyers that their assistant is not in the office. Now, all of a sudden, they’re willing to do it.”

“The big learning for us was that we could multiply this across the whole office.”

Luca Citton

Both Citton and Pancholy agree that the more significant challenge will be finding the young talent to support firms to determine the best approach.

“Whether I talked to my Asian firms, Australian firms, US, Canada, Europe, you hear the same thing over and over again — that they’re looking for talent. They’re all in a position of needing to add talent, and they’re struggling to find it,” says Pancholy.

For Shari Zinman-Levy, the director of “client and lawyer happiness” at Caravel Law, remote work and flexibility are nothing new. Caravel has attracted lawyers interested in flexibility well before the pandemic.

Zinman-Levy has noticed that applicants are asking more questions about flexibility since larger firms are open to adopting that approach.

“Now prospective lawyers are coming in and are asking questions like, how do you compare to x, y, z? Who are your competitors?”

Zinman-Levy says Caravel differentiates itself not solely by what it offers lawyers but in how they connect recruitment to the client experience (hence her title).

“There were times at our organization where those functions were separate. And they eventually came to be together. The value of that is that instead of having broken telephone with the middleman, I hear directly from the client what their goals are for this relationship.” 

WFH policies

Canadian Lawyer reached out to major full service and boutique law firms to see if they had developed a policy yet for “return to work” in mid-summer. Most law firms had not yet communicated a policy, but some did respond with details:

Boughton Law: Will have a hybrid work week where staff and associates will have the option to spend a minimum of three days in the office and two days from home.

Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP: Longer-term approach defines three roles: fully in office, fully remote, and hybrid (generally 8-12 days in office/month), expect most people will pick latter.

Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP: Will transition to a hybrid model based on versatility and flexibility after reviewing data cultivated from a firm-wide survey completed in the summer.

MLT Aikins LLP: adopted a hybrid model with remote work offered as a flexible work option for most roles, including lawyers and staff and decided against a prescribed policy.

Lavery Lawyers: Policy considers both preferences of members and the operational realities of each practice area. Employees will determine the number of days per week they wish to work at the office.

Lerners LLP: First stage was “soft-open,” where staff who return will need to follow a rotation schedule to ensure safe distancing but not mandating that lawyers return to daily in-office attendance.

Gluckstein: Rotate support staff on two days in the office and two at home, with Fridays at home for all support staff.  Lawyers have the flexibility to do what makes sense for them.

Howie Sacks & Henry: Planning to adopt a hybrid model that will see team members working in our offices at least two days per week.

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