To keep pace in a highly competitive environment, law firms and corporate legal departments continue to adapt and modify their client service and business management strategies.
Our annual Future Law Office research report, Best Practices for a New Era in the Legal Profession, explores a variety of trends in the shifting business climate for legal organizations. In this article, we’ll focus on three of these developments that could affect your career path: legal hiring trends, essential skills for future leaders and current recruitment and retention strategies.
Overall business confidence is on the rise, with 84 percent of attorneys surveyed by Robert Half Legal reporting they are sanguine about their companies’ prospects for growth in the third quarter, a three-point increase over the previous quarter. Despite this growing optimism, however, legal hiring has not yet returned to pre-recession levels. While 36 percent of attorneys surveyed said their firms or legal departments plan to increase the number of full-time personnel in the coming three months, nearly half expected no change in staffing levels.
The job market remains tight. Lawyers, legal secretaries and paralegals with expertise in the most popular practice areas have a decided advantage. In contrast, recent law school graduates are facing extended job searches.
Law firms favor experienced lawyers with solid business skills and a roster of existing clients. In response to client desire for more efficient case management, law firms are staffing cases leanly and strategically, taking care to create teams that are neither top-heavy (too many partners) nor bottom-heavy (too many junior associates).
To deliver the necessary expertise and service at rates that match the budgets of cost-conscious clients, more law firms are using project teams—interim legal professionals or a mix of interim and full-time professionals—that are focused on a specific legal task, such as document review for a major case. The team can be expanded or downsized as needs change and projects reach completion. Corporate legal departments, meanwhile, are keeping more work in-house and using a dynamic mix of full-time and project professionals to handle the workload.
Practice specialties expected to show the most growth include bankruptcy/foreclosure (selected by 19 percent of respondents to a Robert Half Legal survey), litigation (17 percent) and general business/commercial law (16 percent). Eighty-five percent of attorneys said their firms do not plan to launch new practice groups in the coming year. The majority of firms are pursuing revenue growth by expanding existing practice groups and seeking additional business from current clients.
Essential Skills for Future Leaders
Research for the white paper identified some other trends, not all of which are new. Attorneys aspiring toward leadership roles such as partner or general counsel, for example, will need well-rounded skill sets that go beyond purely legal knowledge and expertise. Business acumen, solid financial skills and project management abilities will be critical capabilities. Strong communication skills and the ability to anticipate and mitigate risk for clients will also be mandatory skills.
In order to meet these standards, legal professionals can pursue ongoing professional development and continuing education. Although 69 percent of respondents to a separate survey said their firms plan to offer subsidized training or education for their staff, legal professionals also have a responsibility to seek skill-building opportunities on their own, especially in the area of legal technology.
Recruitment and Retention Initiatives
Despite a crowded job market in general, 53 percent of attorneys surveyed said it’s challenging for their firms or legal departments to find skilled legal professionals, especially senior- and partner-level lawyers with strong client relationships and management experience. As a result, recruitment and retention of these in-demand top performers is a high priority for law firms and companies. Performance or productivity bonuses, subsidized training, mentoring programs and work/life balance options such as flextime and telecommuting are among the perks law offices are implementing to attract and retain top-notch legal professionals.
Although this is a period of ongoing change in the legal field, the outlook is promising for lawyers and support professionals with sought-after qualifications. The best strategy is to refine and broaden your skills and acquire additional professional experience by volunteering for more advanced roles or pursuing project and/or pro bono work. This will prepare you for whatever opportunities arise in the future law office.
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.