Law firm associates expect permanent legal industry change amid Covid-19 job security fears

Around 39% of associates say workloads have been cut even as billable hour targets stay the same
The Charging Bull statue in New York's financial district

The Charging Bull by artist Arturo Di Modica wearing an American Flag face mask in New York's financial district Jennifer M. Mason; Shutterstock

A majority of law firm associates worldwide expect the coronavirus pandemic will lead to permanent changes for the legal industry, according to new research from Major Lindsey & Africa (MLA).

More than half of 1,335 associates surveyed in the US, the UK and Asia said they were concerned about job security, with just over a fifth worried about potential cost cutting measures. Some 39% of respondents said they had already seen a reduction in their workload as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, while roughly 94% said their billable hour targets remain unchanged.

Ru Bhatt, a partner in MLA’s associate practice group, said: “Billable hour requirements have emerged as a flashpoint for associates, some who are facing salary cuts and reductions in workloads, and others who are struggling to juggle work with child or family care responsibilities. For these reasons, we’re seeing a strong desire from associates to see the billable hour target changed in light of this pandemic.”

Practice areas where associates have seen the biggest slide in workloads are real estate (58%) and IP (43%). Meantime, associates working in bankruptcy practices said they had seen their workload increase 53%, with 44% of healthcare associates also reporting an increase.

Uncertainty around job security is causing anxiety for some law firm associates. While more than half of respondents are satisfied with the wellness resources firms have provided during the pandemic, around 10% of associates reported mental health as a primary concern.

Stephanie Biderman, managing director in MLA’s associate practice group, said: “Efforts to shine a light on mental health in the legal profession have received significant attention in recent years, and these concerns have only amplified during this crisis. We’re glad to see that firms are stepping up to the plate to support associates’ well-being at this time.”

The survey also found that male associates were more concerned about the impact of remote working on partnership track while their female peers were more concerned about issues around childcare. 

Roughly 95% of associates expect the pandemic to change remote working practices at their firms for good, with another 57% expecting it to cause permanent changes to the need for physical office space.

Despite the disruption, more than two-thirds of respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the levels of communication from their firm, with more than half of associates saying they still feel very connected to the partners they work for.

Further reading on the Covid-19 pandemic

After Covid-19, client tensions that pre-existed the pandemic will become intolerable — Law firms banking on a return to the old way of doing business once the immediate crisis is over are doomed, argues Rob Millard

Under lockdown socialising between international colleagues has increased — Colin Passmore outlines the measures Simmons & Simmons has been taking to promote staff wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis

After Covid-19 lockdown will virtual arbitrations become the new normal? — Michela D'Avino and Bahaa Ezzelarab argue that remote arbitration hearings should be carefully considered as an option to avoid costly delays

A question of timing: the different responses of US and UK elite law firms to Covid-19 — Looming decisions over associate pay and bonuses are a factor in the timing of UK law firm Coronavirus measures

Above all, this crisis too will pass — Rob Millard foresees large law firm mergers and accelerated digitisation in the wake of Covid-19

'It is about being proactive and decisive' — Norton Rose Fulbright EMEA managing partner Peter Scott on the thinking behind the firm's flexible working scheme

'Now is the time for law firms to deliver on their stated values' — Consultant Tony Williams advises law firm leaders to avoid knee jerk decisions and go into communication overdrive during the Covid-19 crisis

'I have realised how powerful technology now is': an Italian lawyer's take on Covid-19 — The lockdown is forcing Italians to embrace digitisation - and that even includes its public officials, writes Gabriella Geatti

Coronavirus risk may be unprecedented, but the fundamental principles of crisis response still apply — Crisis PR specialist Bethaney Durkin advises law firms impacted by the coronavirus to act quickly while avoiding a kneejerk response

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