Job market for attorneys hot nationwide and in St. Louis

By Lisa R. Brown

St. Louis Daily Record — November 27, 1999

Ask any law student or attorney in St. Louis about the job market today for attorneys, and optimistic adjectives abound.  How long this trend is going to last no one knows, but if the economy continues to be solid, it seems, so will the robust market for attorneys.

Resonating throughout law firms nationwide is the feeling that the job market for lawyers right now couldn't be hotter.  A recent study developed by a leading legal staffing service asked attorneys from 1,200 of the nation's largest law firms what they thought about the present job market.  One percent of 200 attorneys polled said they foresaw a decrease in the number of attorneys in their firm.  Ninety-four percent of attorneys polled said they believe the number of lawyers in their firm will increase.

The study was developed by The Affiliates, a California staffing service specializing in project attorneys and legal support personnel, and conducted by an independent research firm.  Lawyers were asked if they expected the number of attorneys employed with their firm to increase, decrease or stay the same in the next three years.

St. Louis lawyers' answer to this question matched the findings of the national survey.  An informal poll of attorneys from the top 10 largest law firms in St. Louis resulted in the unanimous contention that law firms in St. Louis are expected to grow in the next three years.  "I think every single one of our departments is on a significant growth tract," said Robert Tomaso, a hiring partner at Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin, "in particular, corporate employment law, real estate and intellectual property.  Not only am I anticipating growth in the near future, in the last year we've added at least attorneys.  We've only lost two associates in 1999 ... and we've hired 10 new associates.  It's a high growth time, and I expect it to increase in the foreseeable future."

Intellectual property was named by 58 percent of the attorneys in The Affiliates' study as the fastest-growing practice of law in the nation.  Nicole Gore, director of associate development and legal recruiting at Thompson Coburn, said that intellectual property is the fastest-growing area at her firm.  But answers from other St. Louis attorneys ranged from health care to real estate without one practice area that stood out stronger than others.

Jim Monafo, co-chairman of the hiring committee at Husch & Eppenberger, said employment litigation is the fastest-growing practice at his firm.  "I think there's definitely a trend nationwide ... Every couple of years the area that all the law students want to get into changes, and right now it's employment law."

With the market for attorneys as strong as it is, salaries for starting attorneys are growing exponentially.  "Firms are expanding, so there're jobs available.  The starting salary has gone up every year for the last three years for us after a long period of time where it stayed stagnant," said Monafo.

It's a hot job market for attorneys doing sophisticated corporate legal work, said Tomaso.  "I think it's driven by the economy, primarily ... To put it into perspective ... three years ago we were paying new lawyers fresh out of law school $20,000 less than we're paying them today.  So it's a very competitive market for top talent."

Aaron Williams, the president of Aaron Consulting, Inc., a nationwide attorney recruiting and consulting firm, said his business is booming.  In the last 20 years, his headhunter firm, based in St. Louis, has placed attorneys primarily in in-house positions, ranging from general counsel to staff attorneys.  He said with the increase in salaries, there's also an increase in the number of hours attorneys are putting in. "They have to find a way to pay these people more money somehow.  So it's either the clients are paying for it, the partners are paying for it. or the associates are going to have their butts worked off."

What's hot in the job market, just like the stock market, said Williams, changes weekly.  "It does seem that high technology is certainly driving the market, whether you're talking about telecommunications or software --- anything to do with information.  That certainly seems to be one aspect of what's driving the market.  [Another] thing that's driving the market, frankly, is that attorneys keep getting older; ... they keep retiring.  Williams said the family component is also changing, driving the market.  "More and more attorneys, whether it's associates in law firms, whether it's attorneys working in companies, more of them are going for quality of life, and they're finding they want to stay home.  At least on the supply side, more and more attorneys seem to be attracted to employers who would offer competitive compensation, but very flexible work hours.

"The law firm market does seem to be doing extremely well with firms both large and small seeming to be in a very solid, but extremely selective, buying mode right now," Williams said.  "Part of this is due, frankly, to more and more of the headquarters staff of St. Louis losing their jobs and parent companies based outside of St. Louis no longer having a need for lawyers to be working in St. Louis in-house but instead have a need for lawyers with outside counsel doing the work with the units that remain in St. Louis, even though the law staff isn't here anymore."

Due to the significant number of large companies that have left St. Louis, been taken over, or just gone out of business, Williams said, "the in-house economy in St. Louis, or in-house attorney hiring, is probably actually a little bit slower than it was a couple of years ago ... We're losing these Fortune 500 scale companies, but what we're getting instead are Fortune 1000 scale companies" due to spin-offs, reorganizations and restructuring.  "This seems to be the biggest section of growth in the in-house legal profession."

Williams said a major part of the job market being as hot as it is today is the loss of a significant number of in-house attorney positions.  Losing major headquarters, such as General Dynamics, Southwestern Bell, Edison Brothers and Venture, was the start of a wave of companies leaving town.  "The city hasn't added a new Fortune 500 headquarters here for a number of years.  Maybe with the growth downtown, it will add another Fortune 500 headquarters someday.  Maybe the arena site will be able to attract a company with that prominence.  That is a major part of the story, and the [increased] pay certainly doesn't hurt.  Many of my in-house clients are matching and/or exceeding law firm compensation, even at these higher levels."

The growth of small to mid-size companies and the growth in technology has "increased the need for more legal services for companies that are smaller , but are growing, who have grown to the point where they can afford to have their own inside attorney.  Now how long that trend will continue, I don't know and nobody does.  It does seem that the economy nationwide is doing very well.  Law firms are paying better.  [and] law firms, in general, are managing their attorneys better," said Williams.