After being stymied by the pandemic, the legal job market could pick up in 2021

As layoffs and hiring freezes washed over many law firms grappling with a COVID-19 downturn in business, the job market for attorneys in an already competitive field tightened.

Now that courts have reopened, and optimism for vaccines is helping to wake up the broader economy, legal employers may once again look to grow their ranks in 2021 — barring a turn for the worse in the global health crisis.

“Most of the hiring is need-based right now versus opportunistic hiring, which is how the legal market was pre-COVID,” said Chery Jacobs, a Cleveland-based legal recruiter with SCI, a legal staffing division of Special Counsel. “But that’s starting to come back.”

According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the legal services field lost 33,000 jobs between December 2019 and December 2020. Certainly not all, but many of those were in attorney-supporting roles, such as legal assistants.

In Ohio, the latest BLS short-term forecast points to a flat or slightly down job market for legal services between 2019 and 2021. The BLS has projected drops of 0.3% and 0.4% for total jobs and lawyers themselves, respectively. The report was conducted prior to the pandemic that has pinched the country’s workforce, suggesting that drop may be even steeper.

The jury is out on that, though.

Several firms report avoiding layoffs — in many instances, securing millions in Paycheck Protection Program loans certainly helped. However, The American Lawyer reported in the fall that layoffs were quietly working their way through Big Law, including firms like Kirkland & Ellis.

And it’s not as though legal worked stopped. But what’s in demand has shifted. Where some practices slowed, others have picked up.

Corporate M&A was largely put on hold in the earlier months of the pandemic. Work there is beginning to come back on the heels of pent-up demand.

Meanwhile, labor and employment practices could barely keep up with demand. Real estate attorneys kept busy. In-house legal departments staffed up to handle work internally to control costs. And in a sign of the poorer overall health of the economy, bankruptcy work is picking up. Attorneys and solo firms nimble enough to adapt to another practice have fared better than some who haven’t adjusted.

These trends are resulting in mixed outcomes for firms in particular, depending on their areas of focus.

“I am aware of firms who had 2020 as the best year on record and they are in full-blown growth mode,” said Rebecca Ruppert McMahon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. “And I know firms on the other end where practices are decimated. They’re not in growth mode, but constriction.”

General uncertainty, however, made many employers conservative with new hires, even those performing well. Hiring programs for new law school grads frequently were canceled in 2020.

Hires that were made centered more on experienced lawyers who could hit the ground running in a challenging landscape for racking up billable hours. It’s a trend that’s been in motion for a few years, McMahon said. But it became more acute last year.

“Employers are looking for newer lawyers but who at least have some experience over a true, fresh and green right-out-of-law-school lawyer,” she said. “That is because law firms in part want to put those new hires to work immediately.”

Nonetheless, there are “still great opportunities for brand new lawyers, those who are really sophisticated in understanding how to network and how to go after clients,” McMahon said. “Those people for sure do better than those waiting for a position to come to them.”

The longer-term outlook for legal services is relatively promising, too.

The BLS projects increases of 5% and 4% in total legal services jobs and lawyer positions, respectively, between 2019 and 2029.

But with more grads coming out of law school, and incoming classes usually picking up during an economic downturn, the competition for those jobs will still be fierce.

In the nearer term, legal job trends will be tough to predict as long as the pandemic lingers.

“It’s a difficult time to be in the prediction business, particularly with the pandemic being so disruptive and changing how the legal services industry does business,” said Mary Amos Augsburger, CEO of the Ohio State Bar Association, referencing the impact of technology on the industry.

According to Crain’s research, cumulative employment among some 70 Northeast Ohio law firms fell by 1% from 2019 to 2020.

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