Despite a still-recovering economy, hiring has picked up at both law firms and corporate legal departments, according to research conducted for the 2012 Robert Half Legal Salary Guide. Opportunities are expanding for professionals in many key roles – from experienced lawyers to legal secretaries. In addition, employers in the legal field are increasing their use of project professionals to gain greater flexibility in managing fluctuating caseloads and time-intensive e-discovery initiatives.
The upturn in legal hiring has led to a tightening talent market. Nearly half (49 percent) of lawyers polled by Robert Half Legal said it’s challenging for their law firms or companies to find skilled legal professionals. The survey was based on interviews with 200 lawyers among the largest law firms and corporations in the United States. As competition for top candidates has intensified, multiple offers, counteroffers and signing bonuses have become more common.
According to lawyers surveyed, bright spots for hiring include general business/commercial law, cited by 27 percent of respondents, litigation (20 percent) and healthcare law (14 percent). Lawyers with experience in these and other high-growth practice areas, including labor and employment, real estate and intellectual property, are seeing greater demand.
Legal salaries are making slight gains after several years of staff reductions and salary freezes. The Salary Guideprojects starting salaries to rise an average of 1.9 percent over 2011 levels, though proven performers and candidates with in-demand expertise are likely to be offered higher starting compensation.
The guide reports starting salary ranges only. Continuing or ongoing salaries are not reported because they can be affected by many external factors – such as seniority, work ethic, job performance and training – as work histories develop. Some highlights from the research include:
- An in-house licensed attorney with 10-12 years’ experience is projected to see a salary range of $130,750 to $225,500, an increase of 3.4 percent.
- At a midsize law firm (35-75 lawyers), starting pay for lawyers with four to nine years’ experience is expected to range from $115,750 to $168,500, a 5.5 percent increase from 2011. Lawyers at small/midsize firms (10-35 lawyers) are likely to see a rise of 4.9 percent to a range of $83,750 to $149,500.
- A senior/supervising paralegal or legal assistant with seven-plus years’ experience at a small/midsize law firm can expect a 3.8 percent jump in starting compensation to a range of $51,500-$65,000.
- Legal administrators/office managers at small/midsize firms are likely to see a 2.4 percent increase in base salary to a range of $57,250 to $83,000.
Law Firms Renew Hiring
Law firms of all sizes are adding experienced associates. Lateral hiring of midlevel lawyers continues as firms seek professionals with a solid portfolio of clients and business development skills. Firms are adding staff to expand lucrative practice groups, such as litigation, healthcare, bankruptcy/foreclosure and corporate transactional law.
The hiring environment for new law school graduates remains challenging. Firms still are not recruiting entry-level associates in significant numbers, and many summer associate programs have been reduced or put on hold. New entrants to the workforce are increasingly accepting internships or project assignments to build experience and make the contacts needed to find full-time employment.
Demand for legal professionals, including paralegals and other legal support staff, is especially strong at law firms, particularly those that made cutbacks in leaner times and need to rebuild their teams. Paralegals with litigation and e-discovery backgrounds are in high demand, as are those who can perform additional legal or administrative duties. Technical aptitude is also critical, as paralegals often play central roles in managing complex litigation or e-discovery matters.
As firms add lawyers, there is renewed demand for legal assistants and secretaries. Technology proficiency remains essential. Legal assistants and secretaries need to be familiar with a variety of firm management and litigation support software and must be willing to take the lead in learning new technologies.
General counsel are expanding their internal teams to bring more work in-house, contain costs and support business growth. As a result, corporate lawyers, contract administrators and compliance managers are seeing greater demand for their services. General counsel are hiring more paralegals as well, especially experienced, versatile professionals who can help manage complex e-discovery projects.
Legal professionals with in-demand expertise are likely to see expanding job opportunities and more bargaining power at the salary negotiation table. To attract and retain top performers, employers will want to ensure compensation and benefits are competitive.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.