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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

August 20, 2019

Is there a predictable hiring cycle for the in-house market? If so, what is it?

Julie Q. Brush

I’d like to make a move in-house, but don’t know the best time of year to start my search. Is there a predictable hiring cycle for the in house market? If so, what is it?

15+ years ago the hiring market for in house lawyers was fairly predictable and cyclical in nature. Most of the hiring activity occurred in the first quarter (Q1) of the calendar year when legal budgets were created and authorized. Hiring might trickle in to Q2 but by August, the first lull was in full force. September and October usually saw moderate activity with replacement hires, but by the time the holidays rolled around the crickets were chirping. Employers and candidates hunkered down until the New Year when the hiring cycle started again.

Today, it’s a different ballgame. And the hiring activity remains generally constant throughout the year. Budgets are still set in Q1 and the beginning of the quarter still kicks off the hiring season. But hiring continues throughout the year. There is a modest slow down in August, but as a whole there’s far more activity than in years past. The following months are more active with new opportunities arising and interviews pushing through the holidays.
So what accounts for the change? There are a few primary factors:

1. Expanding In House Legal Departments.
With the fast expansion of the in house legal department and desire to hire lawyers much earlier in a company’s lifecycle, legal budgets are growing and companies are hiring lawyers in droves. They are also expanding the practice areas housed in the department – which necessitates additional heads. Given this increased coverage, the timing of these hires can be reactive: in response to the needs of the organization. So new headcount arises throughout the year.

2. Lawyers Are Mobile.
Today’s lawyers are more mobile than ever. And the profession…and hiring managers are more socialized around it so changing jobs is no longer a straight line to career suicide. Today, the average lawyer will switch jobs every two to four years. This kind of movement creates a lot of empty chairs. In response, replacement searches are conducted to fill those chairs. Many of these hires cannot wait until the beginning of the New Year. So Legal starts the search for such positions immediately. This dynamic can happen at any given point of the year and contributes to the year-round hiring activity.

3. Active Private Company Sector.
Activity is up in the private company sector and so is legal hiring. Venture capital, private equity, micro vc, angel firms etc. are pumping lots of money into the market and investing in promising companies and next generation technologies. IPO activity is up as well. And there is a general feeling of optimism in the community. As a result, more companies are growing and creating an infrastructure for their day in the IPO sun. This translates to newly created opportunities for lawyers – at various levels…throughout the year. So for those geographic regions with robust private company activity, this factor will be a material contributor to year round legal hiring.

4. Desire To Have a Dedicated Lawyer
Today’s younger companies are opting to hire their own lawyers who will give 100% of themselves to the organization and its legal issues. Outside counsel costs, their time commitment to other clients and a growing appreciation for an organized legal infrastructure are three primary reasons execs are hiring their first lawyer (and subsequent lawyer/s) sooner rather than later. These needs tend to transcend cycles and arise at all points of the calendar year. So the robust private company market engine is keeping legal hiring at a steady pace.

5. Office Relocation.
The corporate bean counters today are doing the math on the best geographic locations to do business. Tax breaks, talent pool, cost of living, cost of employees and other bottom-line advantages are driving companies to relocate headquarters, offices and/or open new ones. When this occurs, new legal openings are created.

In today’s legal profession, the predictability of years past is long gone. This includes the cyclical nature of legal hiring. And while the evolution of the profession has created anxiety and stress for many lawyers, the more consistent, year-round hiring trend is one change that job seekers will welcome and warmly embrace.

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