Law Firm Hiring Picking Up; Generalists, More Experience in Demand

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By Kelsey Penna    

July 21 -- One in four law firms plans to add new legal jobs in the second half of 2014, according to a June 24 study conducted by Robert Half Legal, a legal staffing and consulting services firm.

“We are optimistic about these numbers,” said Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal. “Law firms are competing to secure new clientele and expand profitability.”

“The worst is behind us,” James Leipold, executive director for the National Association for Law School Placement, said in a similar sentiment. “Law school graduates need to know they are going into a market that is a little uncertain but we know that it will be better than what it was at the downturn.”

NALP released an employment report for the Class of 2013 in June indicating that graduates had found more jobs and higher salaries than previous years, though the overall employment rate was down 2 percent .

The high graduating class is to blame for this decline, but Leipold said future graduating classes will be significantly smaller. If this trend continues that means there will be more jobs and fewer graduates.

“What we expect to see are continued gradual employment outcomes,” Leipold said. “It won't be a rapid turnaround, but instead slow growth.”

Generalists Favored

Litigation is expected to generate the greatest number of legal job opportunities, according to 42 percent of the attorneys surveyed by Robert Half Legal.

“It has always been a busy practice area,” Volkert said. “Even prior to the downturn, not much has changed.”

Commercial litigation, contract management and patent filing are among the business-related legal services in high demand. Corporate legal departments are expanding their internal teams to support these services by taking on more in-house work while reducing their outside spending, Volkert said.

“I recommend that young lawyers remain generalists as much as possible,“ said Mark Ferguson, hiring partner at Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP. “The only real 'specialty' we try to offer at [our firm] is knowing how to try a case efficiently and effectively, without regard to subject area. With that as a specialty, your skills transfer easily if one area of litigation declines and another heats up.”

Retention Problems

On the flip side of hiring, retention remains a concern for legal organizations. Thirty-two percent of lawyers expressed concern about losing top performers to other job opportunities, according to the Robert Half Legal survey.

There needs to be a give and take between employer and employee. The employee needs to come with the skills, but the employer needs to offer reasons for the employee to stay, such as furthering their legal education or compensation packages, Volkert said.

“We don't have an up or out approach, and in a lot of ways that policy itself makes for a better experience for our associates and new partners and helps with retention,” Ferguson said. “Like all firms, we constantly look for ways to keep people--the single most effective thing we do on that front, I think, is providing them with good opportunities and rewarding work as early in their careers as they are capable.”

Wanted: More Experience

The biggest change in the legal hiring market is the demand for candidates with three to seven years of experience compared to one or two prior to the downturn, Volkert said. Firms and corporations are looking for employees that can “hit the ground running.”

For recent law school graduates to be competitive, they need to build their resumes early by externing, volunteering and working part-time, Leipold said. “It is really important to gain experience at any cost. It is still a scrappy entrepreneurial job market.”

Networking is also critical to create professional relationships. Some law schools, such as Penn State University's, have seen an uptick in large employers coming to campus to recruit students, said Neil Sirota, assistant dean of career services.

Now, more than ever, it is important for law students to have a plan, goal and direction for their career, said Maria Mangano, director of career development at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Law. Since the recession, a new reality has been in place and most students are coming in with a realistic idea of what they want to do and what they can do after they graduate, she said. “The same sound standard of advice still applies, but now students need to take the advice and dig deeper and longer for jobs.”

“One result of the recent market 'upheaval' has been for people considering law as a career to make themselves stop and think whether they really want to be lawyers,” Ferguson said. “It is too early to tell, but if that approach holds, I think we may see a change for the better in the legal profession, where more people are happy in their work, and possibly even a return to the civility and collegiality that once was the norm in legal practice.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kelsey Penna in Washington at  

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ryan Tuck at

The study is available at

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