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In ‘war for talent,’ firms shake up hiring practices to stay competitive

Prospective hires currently have the upper hand when searching for the right law firm to practice. As coastal law firms poach associates and partners in the Midwest, some Missouri law firms are offering higher pay and other benefits to even the playing field. 

Chris Batz is president and recruiting manager of the Lion Group, a national legal recruiting organization based in Kansas City. Batz recruits and identifies talent for corporations, in-house counsel and a few select local law firms, and also helps attorneys open new offices. 

Batz said that some law firms are convincing attorneys to leave their current posts and give them anything they want in terms of flexibility. Corporate law firms are raising salaries and poaching attorneys at smaller firms, and private practice firms are retaliating with similar poaching tactics. 

“It’s creating an absolute mess and war for talent,” Batz said. 

It’s also causing pay inflation. Midwest attorney salaries are starting to reflect salaries in larger markets. 

“St. Louis and Kansas City are no longer insulated from the New York and Chicago markets,” Batz said. 

In St. Louis, Kansas City, and other major markets, Batz said that law firms are sprinkling special bonuses across their staff. First-year associates with no experience that make a starting salary of $135,000 to $155,000 can be even choosier. 

For instance, Husch Blackwell plans to raise its starting associate attorney pay from $140,000 to $170,000 for new and existing hires in its Kansas City and St. Louis offices by fall 2022 in order to stay competitive with its locations in other nearby cities such as Chicago. 

“Our goal, first and foremost, is to make sure we have the highest level of client service,” Dean Boeschen, Husch Blackwell’s chief growth officer, said. “To do that, we have to attract and retain top talent.” 

Boeschen said that the firm has not added any other benefits, but that in his opinion, the apprenticeship-like style of Husch Blackwell’s starting associate attorney role provides structure for new hires to learn from mentors and feel supported in their work. 

Batz said that since the COVID-19 lockdowns began, culture and other non-material benefits are more prioritized than ever. People are more careful with their time and value personal relationships over a higher salary. Batz said this means attorneys won’t relocate for a position unless it’s an incredible offer. 

“Law firms have to be very willing to hire remote attorneys or be very sober about hiring local talent,” Batz said, with exceptions of new young hires and partners who are empty nesters. 

Batz said that actively listening to attorneys about what they need and delivering on those needs is the key to protecting staff from poaching. For up-and-coming associates, that looks like “extraordinary” leadership and management, emotional intelligence, strong vision and financials and transparency. 

He said that hires looking to make lateral or upward career moves are looking at who has the most flexible policies and expectations as well as who pays the most money. 

“The ones that are keeping their talent are being incredibly flexible with their talent,” Batz said. 

Batz suggests creative compensation structures that reward attorneys for hard work objectively on performance, not about how people feel. He said this level of transparency ensures certainty on what people will earn.