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The Job Market for Lawyers in 2017

There has been much speculation over the past year regarding the state of the job market for lawyers in 2017 – partially due to the uncertainty of the presidential elections, as well as indications from legal job trends leading into 2017. A study by the National Association for Law Placement showed the employment rate for 2015 law graduates at 86.7 percent, on par with the year before, but much lower than the 91.9 percent rates seen before 2007.

Image credit: http://www.nalp.org/2015_selectedfindings_pr


When evaluating the U.S. legal industry for 2017, the biggest factor leading to job movement so far is the new presidential administration. With the promises to change legislation relating to health care, immigration, trade, tax policies, and environmental regulations, law firms are scrambling to accommodate the need for lawyers with relevant experience.

Another factor influencing how legal firms are hiring this year is the expectation of a business-friendly administration. Not only will businesses of all sizes need to adjust to a potentially new regulatory framework, but they’ll also want to take advantage of lighter regulations in various ways.

A trend that has been occurring over the past few years and will continue in 2017 is the demand in hiring from mid-sized and boutique law firms. Many of these companies were started by partners who left big firms during the economic downtown and later founded more sophisticated and dynamic firms.

Robert Half’s Legal staffing department recently compiled a list of trends that will shape the salary of lawyers and legal staff in 2017. Here are some of their key findings:

Hiring is up overall as firms and in-house legal departments are increasing the number of staff to address overall business growth. According to an employment trends survey, about 84 percent of attorneys interviewed in the U.S. said they expected their companies to hire staff during the first half of the year. This number indicates a slight increase from the second half of 2016 (82 percent).

Salaries are expected to rise this year at about 3.6 percent overall. While the average wage of lawyers is expected to increase by around 4.7 percent, there is an even greater increase for legal specialists at 5.1 percent. There are also healthy growth figures for employees in other areas – 2.3 percent for legal secretaries and 3.8 for in-house counsel, for example.

The practice area showing the most demand right now is litigation. Nearly half of all attorneys who took part in the employment trends survey said litigation would be a driving force when it comes to job growth in 2017. Commercial litigation is thought to be the subspecialty that will garner the most legal positions. And of course, where there is great demand for these legal specialists, you can expect higher salaries.

While litigation may be leading the charge, other practice areas will be in demand by employers and law firms across various sizes. General business law, commercial law, real estate law, family law, regulatory/compliance law, labor and employment law, and intellectual property law are all areas for new lawyers to consider getting into as these areas provide immediate opportunities versus other practice areas.

As with any other industry, negotiation when it comes to salary is a must. If you are an experienced and sought-after attorney, you have more wiggle room than you may think. Think twice before accepting the first compensation package offered to you by potential employers. This does not apply solely to lawyers – paralegals with years of experience in a specific practice area should do some research to find out what others are getting paid by top companies before accepting any offer.

Healthcare is typically one of the top five fastest-growing industries in the U.S. Even with the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act, lawyers who get into this field can expect a competitive salary. Likewise, healthcare-focused attorneys and paralegals that have gone through the experience of implementing policies from past administrations have an advantage over newbies.

While litigation is expected to have the most demand this year, support staff positions are also lucrative. For example, as a firm’s workload grows, litigation support directors who can manage cases and eDiscovery can expect an almost 10 percent salary increase this year! This indicates one of the highest increases amongst all legal jobs. Even professionals with only one year of experience in this sector can see a 7.3 percent salary boost. It is an area for professionals who are waiting to take the bar exam or land their first big job to consider.

Expect growing demand in 2017 for lawyers who have experience in international law. With the U.K. in the process of splitting from the E.U. and key political races taking place across the globe, legal professionals who have done work outside of the U.S. and can speak more than one language will certainly have an advantage. Additionally, lawyers who are licensed in multiple states can expect more career opportunities and salary growth.

As technology continues to influence how legal firms handle their operational processes, specialists who are knowledgeable in this area can command salaries that are higher than attorney and paralegal salaries. The ability to use technology for research, to conduct eDiscovery, and thus increase productivity for clients and colleagues is a major asset.

Finally, as more firms adapt to alternative fee structures, the standard lawyer salary based on billable hours is likely to be impacted. Whether you are taking your first job as a lawyer or consider yourself a seasoned attorney, take the time to understand what these alternative structures mean for your paycheck.