The Hiring Environment in the United States

Responding to an improving business outlook, law firms and corporate legal departments have resumed hiring. Legal professionals in virtually all key roles – from experienced lawyers to legal secretaries – are seeing opportunities expand. Much of the activity is driven by the need to rebuild legal teams after downsizing staff during the downturn.

Research conducted for The Robert Half Legal Hiring Index consistently identifies strong hiring activity projected for the legal field. Some employers prefer temporary-to-full-time arrangements, which affords the opportunity to assess the skills and capabilities of potential staff before extending an offer. Also, more legal offices are assembling teams composed of both full-time and project-based employees to provide greater flexibility in managing special initiatives and rising caseloads, such as those related to litigation and e-discovery.

The market is tightening for top prospects, and multiple offers, counteroffers and signing bonuses are reappearing. Lawyers surveyed for The Robert Half Legal Hiring Index report difficulty finding highly skilled candidates. The shift to a more candidate-driven legal jobs market is also increasing retention challenges. Staff members who don't feel sufficiently rewarded may start to consider other job opportunities if employers don't take immediate steps to enhance their loyalty.

Additional trends likely to influence the legal hiring environment in the coming months include:

Growth of e-discovery. Time, budget and resources spent on e-discovery requirements continue to increase. Many law firms and corporations now have designated e-discovery experts, a role that requires both legal and information technology skills. They also are bringing on project professionals to address e-discovery and litigation-related matters. (Top)

Improving compensation. Compensation and bonuses are recovering, but increases remain modest. The vast majority of lawyers recently polled by Robert Half said their law firms or corporate legal departments plan to award associates pay raises and bonuses. Although starting salaries have not returned to pre-recession levels for the most part, employers may be willing to offer above-average compensation for proven performers or candidates with in-demand expertise. Firms also are offering performance-based bonuses to ensure top talent is appropriately rewarded. (Top)

Renewed focus on work/life balance. Leaner teams have meant heavier workloads for legal professionals. After several years of doing more work with fewer resources, a growing number of professionals are demanding greater work/life balance. Those employers that offer this flexibility have an edge in recruitment efforts. Many industry observers expect legal offices to begin to emphasize benefits such as flexible scheduling, telecommuting and part-time work as recruitment and retention tools, especially for legal professionals with in-demand skills.

Experience matters. Law firms and corporate legal departments are placing a premium on candidates with key skills and relevant experience to fill gaps in expertise and make immediate contributions. Law firms are focusing on hiring experienced lawyers who bring with them portfolios of clients, while both law firms and corporate legal departments are hiring highly skilled paralegals and legal secretaries. The job market remains challenging for newly minted lawyers and other entry-level professionals. (Top)

Law firms of all sizes are continuing to add senior- and partner-level lawyers who have existing clients, in-demand practice area expertise and management skills. Also finding opportunities are lawyers with four to seven years of experience in busy practice areas, such as litigation, labor and employment, real estate, and corporate law. Firms in large markets, in particular, are expanding their practices in these areas.

According to Robert Half Legal's new white paper, Future Law Office: Best Practices for a New Era in the Legal Profession, tomorrow's most successful lawyers will need business acumen and solid management skills, as well as knowledge of the law. They must approach client relationships with a focus on solving a company's problems, based on a thorough understanding of the client's business and the issues it faces. This holistic approach to working with clients also has made project management skills and interpersonal abilities increasingly important for lawyers.

The job market remains challenging for new law school graduates because the demand for these lawyers has yet to catch up with the supply. Firms still are not hiring entry-level lawyers in significant numbers, and summer associate programs remain scaled back for the most part. Candidates seeking a foothold in the workforce are often accepting internships or temporary assignments, including document review projects. These options allow professionals to build experience and make the contacts they need to find full-time employment. Entry-level lawyers who are adept with e-discovery technologies such as Relativity may have a hiring advantage. (Top)

Paralegals and Legal Support Professionals
Law firms, especially large ones, are actively hiring paralegals and other legal support professionals. Experienced candidates who demonstrate their ability to make immediate contributions are the most sought-after legal support professionals. The role of the paralegal continues to become more complex and demanding, as these professionals take on additional legal and administrative duties. For example, some paralegals are handling work that once was assigned to junior associates but does not require a law license. Those with expertise in litigation and e-discovery are in especially high demand.

The most marketable paralegals have a bachelor's degree, four to seven years of experience and a certification or accreditation from an American Bar Association-approved program. In addition, technical aptitude is critical as paralegals increasingly play central roles in managing complex e-discovery initiatives. Knowledge of applications such as Relativity, Summation and Concordance is highly desirable

As firms add lawyers, they need more people to support them. As a result, there is higher demand for legal assistants and secretaries. More firms are reversing course and scaling back on the number of lawyers these legal professionals support, with some firms even reverting to 1:1 lawyer-to-legal-secretary ratios. Technology proficiency remains essential for legal secretaries. Not only do they need to be familiar with a variety of firm management and litigation support software, but they also must be willing to take on added responsibilities, including learning new technologies. (Top)

Corporate Legal Departments
Corporate legal departments continue to focus on containing costs and expanding their in-house capabilities in order to reduce their spending on outside counsel. General counsel are hiring lawyers, compliance officers, paralegals, contract managers and administrators, particularly professionals with expertise in contracts and compliance, as they take a more proactive approach to protecting and promoting corporate interests. For contract manager roles, a law degree is often preferred, while compliance positions may be filled by either lawyers or paralegals.

Lawyers well versed in all aspects of corporate law are sought for general counsel and assistant counsel positions. With larger in-house teams, corporate lawyers are focusing not only on ways to save money for their firms, but also on recapturing or even creating revenue through legal recovery programs. Robert Half Legal's Future Law Office: Best Practices for a New Era in the Legal Profession offers more insights into how the role of the corporate legal department within a company continues to evolve.

When hiring paralegals, corporations seek experienced, versatile professionals who can handle a range of legal duties and help manage high-profile initiatives, such as complex e-discovery projects.

Back to the top
Calculate Administrative Salaries  

Download a printed guide