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Report: Legal hiring on the rise locally, nationally

Special to the Legal News

Published: September 29, 2011

One in four law firms and corporate legal departments plans to add legal staff in the next three months, while just 1 percent is looking at reductions in personnel, according to the latest quarterly Robert Half Legal Hiring Index.

The net 24 percent increase in hiring activity is down six points from the previous quarter’s forecast but remains above the average for all occupations surveyed by Robert Half for its Professional Employment Report.

The company places candidates into contract, contract-to-hire and direct placement openings within the legal field.

In the years since the recession took hold in 2007, intermittent blips of increased hiring activity have emerged for a quarter here or there, but numbers ultimately waned when new results were released 13 weeks later.

This quarter’s report follows successive reports in previous quarters that also show increased growth, a pattern that is taking hold in the capital city as well, said Anne Edmonds, regional vice president of staffing firm Robert Half Legal in Columbus.

“We’re not seeing that spike and drop,” she said.

Although such a significant increase in hiring activity is undoubtedly a sign of growth within the profession, some who deal directly with both law firms and potential candidates say, in the Columbus area, these numbers generally are a result of strategic hiring — the practice of hiring for very specific talents and job skills and business contacts.

“Law firms are hiring very strategically,” Edmonds said. “They’re hiring for (an existing) book of business, for specific service offerings,” which, for lawyer positions, generally means mid- to high-level associates, she said.

“Clients are looking for (candidates who are) ready to go.”

The hottest areas of law looking for more help? Labor and employment law and bankruptcy and foreclosure law. Commercial real estate law also has shown a surprising uptick in hiring lately, but Edmonds warned that she needs to see that trend continue before she feels that sector is fully healthy from a new jobs perspective.

Edmonds said that new law school graduates who lack experience are not entirely unable to find work in the city.

“New JDs are struggling,” she said, but those new graduates have an opportunity to find work if they are flexible. Every fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked lawyer wants that perfect, full-time associate gig, she said, but those opportunities are becoming increasingly rare. It’s those who are willing to take on project and contract-based work who are positioning themselves to get a “foot in the door” by impressing hiring managers while on a temporary assignment, she said.

Hiring lawyers for project-based contract work has received some negative attention in recent years, as firms attempt to slash the costs of retaining full-time employees by utilizing firms such as Edmonds’ for temporary talent.

Although temporary contract work can have its downside — 12-week projects can abruptly turn into six-week gigs if projected workload levels are unrealized, and the lack of a consistent paycheck can be nerve-wracking — there are benefits to this type of work, Edmonds said.

In addition to the increased networking opportunities that result from completing multiple projects with multiple firms, an attorney can benefit from learning in different environments and cultures.

It’s not just experienced and project-based attorneys who are in demand within the industry. Edmonds said paralegal demand has been particularly high in Central Ohio, as well. Those who can combine their paralegal skills with those of a legal secretary, do especially well because they are creating a hybrid role that many firms large and small are coveting.

The local legal labor market, Edmonds said, is as healthy as ever. Generally considered a small- to mid-sized market, Columbus’ relatively stable economy and diverse corporate population make it a steady market that should remain healthy for the foreseeable future.

“We’ve had solid growth in (the Columbus) market. We’re going to go in the right direction,” she said.

Also according to the report, 49 percent of legal teams said it is challenging to find skilled legal professionals and 82 percent of lawyers are confident in their companies’ prospects for growth in the next three months (down 2 points from the third quarter of 2011).

Twenty percent of lawyers identified litigation as the area of law that will experience the most growth in the next three months. Bankruptcy and foreclosure law received 18 percent of the response, followed by labor and employment law at 14 percent.

Law firms and corporate legal departments expect to hire an average of two full-time positions in the fourth quarter, according to survey respondents. Those interviewed indicated they most likely will hire lawyers (96 percent), paralegals (28 percent) and legal secretaries (22 percent).

The survey was developed by Robert Half Legal and was conducted by an independent research firm. The survey is based on telephone interviews with 100 lawyers at law firms with 20 or more employees, and 100 corporate lawyers at companies with 1,000 or more employees. All of the respondents have hiring authority within their organizations.

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