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Job outlook for lawyers good in 2021

Good news for law school graduates and others in the legal profession. A year after the earliest Covid-19 cases hit the United States prompting a near-shutdown of the economy, there are more law firms and corporate legal departments hiring employees in 2021 than there are letting them go. 

In fact, 57 percent of respondents to a recent survey by Robert Half Legal Consulting Solutions said they are expanding compared to 1 percent eliminating positions. Another 37 percent of respondents are bringing back furloughed employees or at least maintaining their current workforce, while 5 percent are neither filling vacated positions, nor creating new ones.

Rob Birrenkott
The HR department head is asking questions about the job history and career prospects for the job.

“We’re seeing firms continue to hire across the board,” said Rob Birrenkott, assistant dean for career development at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill. “When the pandemic first hit, we had real concerns for our class of 2020 entering the job market. There was an initial pause when everybody sat back and assessed the situation. Then hiring resumed.”

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Not only did hiring continue, very few students who had already secured employment lost a job offer. 

“The only impact we saw was a delay in some start dates,” he said. “Typically, students would sit for the bar exam in July, get their results in September and have an early fall start date. We saw some start dates pushed back to January 2021.”

The same scenario played out at The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

Ray English

“We didn’t have many employers cancel any jobs. If they did anything, they deferred them to the start of the year,” said Ray English, the school’s assistant dean for career and employment services. If it was a position with a larger law firm, often the employer offered a bonus averaging $10,000 to soften the delay and keep prospective employees committed.

Pandemic creates demand for certain legal fields 

The Robert Half survey brings good news to the legal professionals, some more than others, said Lawrence Klein, a branch manager for the consulting company in New York. 

“We are seeing upticks in litigations as well as renegotiations in real estate when everybody is working from home,” he said, referring to a few of the many economic impacts from the pandemic that are increasing demand for certain specialties within the law. “There are more bankruptcies. There’s a need for restructurings. What do companies look like moving forward? Think of all the new products coming out because of (the pandemic) … all the (intellectual property) legal ramifications that come from just one product.”

His firm’s survey found the most marketable candidates for positions entry level and much higher specialize in bankruptcy, labor and employment, litigation, healthcare, data security, intellectual property or insurance. 

“These attorneys are commanding higher salaries and multiple offers in certain markets,” the survey results state. 

This supports what Birrenkott and English have seen in the job offers students are fielding. 

“When the economy is bad there tends to be more litigation. Litigation goes up and bankruptcy goes up,” English said. 

At UNC, Birrenkott has also seen an uptick in the demand for labor and employment attorneys. 

“(The pandemic) created new and novel questions on the labor spheres. Employers need legal advice on how to navigate those,” he said.  New territory to face includes questions such as:

  • How to respond as employers if we have an employee who tests positive? 
  • Do we have to re-evaluate compensation packages?
  • Can we require people to work from home?
  • Can we require them to work in the workplace?

Birrenkott is also seeing an increase in the number of family law firms looking to hire attorneys. 

“That was somewhat of a surprise. I’m not sure if it’s the result of the need to modify child custody arrangements,” he said, adding the pandemic has definitely put extra stress on families. Divorce has been on the rise with some family law attorneys reporting a 50 percent increase in filings.

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Where hiring may be limited 

“I think there’s been a slowdown in construction law (hiring) because of the impact on the housing market and the construction market,” English said. “Those tend not to be entry level positions, though, more a few years out.” The job losses might not be felt as much at larger law firms, however, he said because they have the flexibility to move lawyers to other fields and clients.

While the demand for legal aid is climbing with the pandemic, and UNC as well as many other schools graduate law students who want to work in the public interest arena, Birrenkott worries even with a strong supply and demand, a lack of funding could limit hiring. 

A portion of legal aid budgets is generated from the Interest on Trust Accounts or IOTA programs across the country.  

“When you have historically low interest rates, the budget for some legal aid is going to be adversely impacted,” he said.

Another pandemic trickle effect: delayed bar exams.

Small law firms with 25 or fewer attorneys are experiencing a disruption in their hiring practices because of a change in timelines, English pointed out. More than 20 states didn’t offer the bar in July 2020 as usual, and many that did also offered later exams in October or February 2021. Small firms that would have hired 2020 law school graduates when they passed the July bar exam and became licensed attorneys in September, have had to hold off.

“Larger firms can hire you and float you until you pass the bar. Smaller firms need licensed attorneys who can actually carry a workload and bill right away, not someone who is just a law clerk,” English said. “They won’t hire you until you actually pass the bar.”

The pass-fail effect on hiring 

As law schools went online in the Spring 2020 semester, many offered classes on a pass-fail basis since students didn’t have the benefit of face-to-face instruction, access to libraries, study groups and other resources. Some students had no options but to take certain classes pass-fail, while others had the option to take traditional grading or pass-fail.

“It’s been an interesting challenge in trying to make sure employers are comparing apples to apples,” English said. At Arizona State, students who took classes-pass fail could opt not to have those credit hours included in their ranking, but potential employers had to understand this wasn’t the traditional way, he said. 

Employers’ timeline for hiring for Summer 2021 positions has been pushed back because of pass-fail classes. 

Law firms that usually recruit law students for summer employment a year out couldn’t get a good feeling for their academic standing without letter grades, Birrenkott said. So instead of hiring in the summer or early fall of 2020, many waited until now so they could see letter grades from the fall 2020 semester grades.

New factor on negotiating table

Along with negotiating salary and benefits, a growing number of job candidates are likely going to ask about working remotely some or all of the time.

Lawrence Klein

“I think that’s a reality law firms are going to have to face these days,” Klein said. “When you look at these big markets where mass transit is involved and major commute times, at some point law firms are going to have to weigh productivity (of working from home) versus how it was before. Can someone be more productive by not leaving their home or a five-mile radius and is there still a need for someone to show up to an office on the fortieth floor ?”

It would seem the elimination of waiting for crowded elevators and watercooler talk leads to more productive employees, he said, but at home, there are the distractions of roommates, spouses or children.

“There are a lot of different considerations we are only just touching on for the first time now,” Klein said.

 Contact Katherine Snow Smith at Follow her on Twitter at @snowsmith.