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Don’t just follow the money in job hunt

Good news for lawyers looking for jobs — it’s a seller’s market.

That’s the conclusion of the most recent salary survey by Robert Half Legal released this fall.  To complicate matters, the study also reveals that nonmonetary elements of a compensation package are important.

Jodi Standke, CEO of Talon Performance Group, agreed with those study results. The most important considerations for prospective lawyers are salary, career growth, and a firm culture that allows for collaboration and teamwork, she said.

The salary wars started a year ago when large firms, led by Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which  raised starting associate salaries from $160,000 to $180,000. Fish & Richardson and Jones Day, with offices in Minneapolis, followed suit, as did about 100 law firms, reported Above the Law.

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, the blog reported that Dorsey has raised its Minneapolis starting salaries from $120,000 to $140,000 and attributes the increase to the presence of Jones Day. Dorsey could not be reached for comment.

If Dorsey raises salaries, the other big firms in town will follow suit, Standke predicted. “It will be interesting to see who does what,” she said. The differences in firm culture will show a little more since not all firms will be able to raise salaries, she said.

A year into the salary wars, Robert Half reports, 34 percent of attorneys in law firms said they are somewhat or very concerned about losing top legal performers to other job opportunities.

Trend watch: hiring

The state of the market reflects a general increase in hiring as well as increased interest in lawyers from the tops of their class at the best law schools, said Amber Schreier, metro market manager of the Minneapolis office of Robert Half. Standke agrees that the market is busy, with firms of all sizes hiring, and doesn’t expect that to change.

Robert Half reports that steady hiring activity is expected in 2018 and warns, “Employers who delay hiring decisions risk losing strong candidates to other firms.”  It also notes that employers who are naturally looking for increased billable hours from associates with increased salaries differ in their approaches to hiring. Some seek associates with proven track records and others look for lawyers with fewer years of experience whom the firm can train.

The predicted high-growth practice areas are litigation, business/commercial law, real estate, compliance and health care.

Other trends that lawyers are concerned about, according to the study, are attrition in law firms and corporate legal departments, the rising demand for tech-savvy support staff and the ability to staff flexibly. Notably, the report says, while law firms are reporting it difficult to find and retain talent, they are also “running lean and hiring strategically,” which may include temporary or project-based jobs.

Firms are also making “targeted hires” in lucrative practices including commercial law, intellectual property and litigation. At the same time, corporate legal departments are expanding and bringing more work inside the company.

Law firm mergers and acquisitions play a part in the picture as well. According to a 2010 study, employees at acquired firms often receive a significant salary bump, contradicting a once widely-held belief that one of the primary motivations for merges and acquisitions is to reduce labor costs, Schreier said.

Trend watch: millennials

Theories abound on the impact of millennials (roughly, born 1980 to 2000) in the workplace. “As the generation making up the largest portion of the workforce, millennials are quickly changing attitudes in the workplace—from salary expectations to work schedule arrangements,” Schreier said. She added that while generalizations are dangerous, there are five that legal employers may find pertinent:

  • They’ve been affected by the Great Recession and its aftermath, along with the explosive growth of student debt.  Schreier also said that graduates from the years of the recession are “finding their way.”
  • They tend to change jobs more than order generations, perhaps because they’re setting down and starting families later.
  • They’re part of the first generation in history to be immersed in technology throughout their lives.
  • They stand out with their problem-solving skills, curiosity, confidence and interest in personal and professional growth.
  • They value work-life balance over traditional career paths and schedules as well as working for companies they can take pride in.

Trend watch: nonmonetary perks

So law firms may need to revise their playbooks, Schreier said. It recommends five steps to increased job satisfaction:  Hire for fit, employer staff, show appreciation, provide meaningful work and foster a culture of collaboration.

“Candidates are very interested in the nonmonetary perks,” said Schreier.  “Lawyers need to really sell the whole organization, not just the compensation.”  A well-defined career path, investments in ongoing learning, professional development and paths to leadership are important, Schreier said. “It’s about feeling as if an individual has a place to move and grow and develop within that organization,” she said.

New lawyers are also interested in child care, flexible work schedules, and working remotely, Schreier said. “Increasingly, employers—when possible—are working to embed flexibility into their culture. Law firms are on the forefront of this trend, as clients are most concerned about the quality of legal work and less concerned about where the work is being done. While that flexibility over where the work gets done will help lawyers better manage their lives, it doesn’t mean fewer work hours.”

Work-life balance doesn’t really exist anymore, Standke said. “We’re in an age of the integrated life. It all works together.”  That requires clear performance expectations and measurements so that the employee can work flexible hours, she said. “This is more accepted than it’s ever been.”

Additionally, some firms are experimenting with non-partnership track positions that pay less but demand fewer billable hours. “They’re good options for legal professionals who want to do challenging and stimulating work without having to sacrifice their personal lives,” Schreier said.

She added that research shows that clients are also driving the change in lawyer jobs by demanding more cost-efficient legal services which, in turn, prompts firms to reevaluate their business models, add options such as alternative billing and hire more non-equity lawyers.

Some lawyers may turn to what Robert Half terms “alternative legal careers,” the most popular being compliance officer, privacy officer, environmental law specialist and contracts manager, Schreier said. She also said that another survey asked lawyers what “alternative legal careers” most appealed to them and the top careers were alternative dispute resolution counselor, academics and nonprofit or public interest legal services provider.


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