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February 27, 2023

State of the Legal Market 2023 – The Lawyer Whisperer

Julie Q. Brush

As we round February and prepare to slide into March, the number of inquiries, concerns, and freak-outs I’ve received about the current state of the legal market has reached epic proportions. For those wondering the same or are feeling uneasy about where things stand and what the future may hold, I have provided a finger on the pulse of what is happening…right now, this very minute. Before you read on, take a Dramamine, and prepare for the twists and turns of the legal profession as they have unfolded yesterday and as they continue to unfold today.

First, a brief history.

After an unprecedented global pandemic rocked Planet Earth, the world experienced one of the greatest and swiftest economic rebounds in history. Fueled by the thriving IPO and SPAC markets, legal hiring (and for that matter hiring across every professional vertical) reached a feverish pitch by the end of Q1 2021, with Tech leading the way. For the 14 months that followed, employers: law firms, startups, investment firms, nonprofits, PE owned, and public companies alike dueled to the death for premium legal talent…as well as for candidates who slotted into the “good” and “so-so” ranks. And remote roles provided a substantial increase of viable opportunities for candidates who lived in geographical areas spanning from Tuscaloosa to Timbuktu.

These market dynamics threw the balance of leverage square into the inviting arms of ambitious job seekers, who used that leverage wisely. In response, employers scrambled for competitive advantages. Interview cycles were truncated, titles got heftier (creating some misalignment with their less experienced owners), and money started growing on trees. The fierce war for talent sent compensation into the stratosphere (yet again) with continued increases every eight to 12 weeks. It was hard for employers to keep up – but keep up they tried. Candidate mobility also reached an all-time high. So, not only did employers struggle to attract talent, but they also struggled to keep it.

The stock market was on fire as well – with breathtaking company valuations and newly minted paper millionaires each day. Despite warning cries and red flags from seasoned economists, most everyone in the corporate and investment communities shut their eyes and let it ride.

But all good things must come to an end (right?) – and the champagne hangover started setting in as we approached late April/beginning of May 2022. Many companies that went public through SPACs in 2021 were starting to suck wind, which made this liquidity option less and less attractive. In addition, high inflation, weaker corporate earnings, and the invasion of Ukraine, made the once sure-footed markets distinctively wobbly. The hard charging emerging companies slotted for their summer debuts pulled out of the process, driving the IPO markets to an almost screeching halt.

Cue the layoffs.

Lawyers were generally spared from the first wave of corporate and law firm layoffs and in some ways, for Legal, it was business as usual. Legal hiring continued at the mid-level and General Counsel level but was less active by roughly 25% compared to 12 months prior. Law firms pumped the brakes on hiring and came to a very slow roll.

By late Q3, legal departments were harder hit by the second wave of layoffs, and the number of lawyers with pink slips sharply increased, much to their disbelief. What looked to be a bleak holiday season, sprang a glimmer of hope by a hiring pickup right before Thanksgiving. Privacy and data security, regulatory and compliance led the charge. Startups were also hiring their first lawyers, but instead of the General Counsel or Chief Legal Officer level, many of these roles were “downgraded” to VP of Legal/Head of Legal/Director of Legal levels. Even if a title was officially called “General Counsel”, reporting structures and compensation reflected roles not on equal footing with the other top execs in the organization. “We’re not going public anytime soon, so let’s try this first and see what happens” was the common executive mantra.

As we entered the holidays, burned out and travel-hungry professionals unplugged and went off the grid, which disrupted the slight hiring momentum that had been building since mid-November. The New Year started slowly in the legal market. Employees returned to work in critical mass the week of January 9th due to varying back to school schedules. In the following weeks, workers reacclimated, re-engaged, assessed workloads, set hiring budgets, and contemplated strategic layoffs. It wasn’t until the tail end of January that the frigid legal hiring landscape started to thaw.

So where do things stand today? Should we plan for Armageddon or Happy Days? Below is a detailed account of the key areas to know. 

Hiring (Non-GC Levels).

A sluggish January prolonged the typical New Year, New Budget, New Hire activity. But as we head into March, the legal hiring activity has picked up a click or two at all seniority levels. The practice areas currently in higher demand include Compliance, Regulatory, Privacy and SaaS – along with specialty roles in specialty industries like Life Sciences, Healthcare and Investment. A few factors are driving this market:

Busting at the Seams. The belt-tightening in 2022 preserved some cash but increasing legal work for organizations continues to mount. The lawyers spared from layoffs have been absorbing more… and more…and more work, creating an unsustainable medium or long-term situation. With the risk of losing great team members due to burnout or sheer misery, leadership is starting to pound the table for reinforcements while delicately waltzing with Finance for the funds.

Replacement Searches. Lawyer mobility remains a serious problem for employers. While the downturn will ease migratory behavior, replacing key team members who have left for greener pastures is driving some of the hiring now and will continue throughout in 2023.

More Optimism. Some organizations are feeling more “right sized” and stable after layoffs with have a better line on their cash positions. A few twinkles in the market including some forward motion in the IPO market have also sparked greater optimism that Doomsday may be approaching the rearview mirror. With this feeling comes greater willingness (and budget) to hire lawyers. Excellent!

Hiring (VP of Legal, Head of Legal).

Otherwise known as “GC Light”, these roles have been increasing in number since late last year. Over the last several years, executives have been adding lawyers much earlier in the company’s lifecycle. In 2021, there were a record number of Series A and early B stage startups seeking their first lawyer. So that trend has been evolving for a good while. But the current trend of downgrading GC/CLO roles to a lower level has added bulk to the opportunity pool in this hiring category. These roles will typically have a CFO/Finance or CAO reporting structure and will manage a small team (or get to hire reinforcements after 5-8 months). Cash compensation will be competitive, but stock grants will be materially lower than a prototypical GC/CLO. You’ll find more remote roles in this group as well, making this an additionally attractive option.

Hiring (General Counsel/Chief Legal Officer).

General Counsel/CLO hiring is not dead! In Q4 I saw a microtrend of companies downgrading their Top Legal Eagle roles. That is continuing, but as of mid-February, there has been an increase in hiring activity for prototypical GC/CLOs, with more to come online in March. It won’t be an explosion of opportunities, but the needle is moving in the right direction. A few more market facts about this hiring sector:

  • Executives who are optimistic about needing to be “IPO ready” in 12-18 months, will opt for a more seasoned legal exec as opposed to “GC Light”.
  • Compensation for GC/CLOs is holding steady from Q4 2022, and negotiation dynamics are as described below in my “Compensation” commentary.
  • Currently, executives prefer their CLOs to be near the Mothership with an in-office requirement of 2-3 days a week. Next preference is for this attorney to reside in the region and travel weekly or monthly to the home office. Of course, there are companies where remote is still an option – and you will find them out there now, particularly among earlier stage startups. But the trend is moving towards a hybrid work dynamic.
  • Public company GC/CLO hiring remains unpredictable. Why? Because public company GCs do not frequently leave their roles…unless it is for one or more of eight reasons: (1) They are fired, (2) they retire, (3) they upgrade to a larger company/bigger legal department, (4) they move to a hot startup or company about to IPO, (5) company relocates and GC/CLO does not want to move, (6) company is entangled in ethical issues, (7) company is taken private, and (8) new CEO brings in their own GC/CLO with whom they have worked before.

The IPO Market.

Since the New Year, there have been 17 IPOs and as of this date, seven are trading above their debut price (41%), nine are trading below their debut price (53%) and one remains unchanged (.06%). Industries leading the IPO pipeline include Blank Check, followed by Health Care, Technology, Consumer Goods and then Industrials. While these numbers aren’t as high as they were in Boomtime, the good news is that IPOs and filings are up since the start of the downturn – as are the number of companies trading above their debut price. For now, I’ll take the small victory. The health of the IPO market influences legal hiring and overall economic activity. So, any kind of positive movement will contribute to a faster recovery. The summer months will be the next big milestone for the IPO market. Until then….


Compensation (at all levels) has remained flat out…flat. No increases. No decreases. What has changed; however, is how employers are approaching compensation and how the negotiation dynamic is unfolding between employer and candidate. So, what does that look like? Here’s an example:

When employers have an open role, they are communicating lower compensation ranges with a lower ceiling. They may have room to go higher, but they will only exceed the top end of the base salary range if absolutely necessary – and when they do, it’s not by much. Employers remain more generous on the stock grant but will come in mid-range on the first offer. Some employers will trial-balloon low-end of the range first offers to test whether they can pay less for the candidate they want. This strategy has not been effective to date. Candidates are entering the process more realistically and with greater flexibility. They are still reliably countering for more, but their asks do not include the Moon and the Stars. Consequently, negotiations conclude at the high end or slightly higher than the top of base salary, the originally stated target bonus, a reasonable signing bonus and/or some concessions on start date.

*A comment about Compensia and Radford (and other like comp consulting firms). As I have previously noted, these firms provide notoriously low numbers for legal compensation. They always have. Now that the market has slowed and employers have a bit more leverage, it may be tempting to think that their compensation data will now reflect current “market numbers”. They will not. If you or your HR departments would like the most accurate legal compensation data at any given time, please reach out to me directly and I will be happy to help. No charge.


Lawyers care about titles. A lot. The more important sounding…the better. Ambitious younger generations are striving for and seeking bigger titles more frequently and earlier in their careers. So, when the market was soaring, candidates were able to upgrade their titles with relative ease, creating pretty serious title inflation. Today, employers are not as ready, willing, or eager to offer the bigger titles. They are holding on tighter to the leveling to maintain internal parity with their current team and to leave room for quicker advancement. Candidates are still countering with bigger title asks, but only landing them about 20%-25% of the time.

Remote vs. In Office Work.

The remote work pendulum has been swinging now for three years. During the pandemic, workers got used to working from home…and liked it. As the economy rebounded, remote work roles were table stakes for employers needing to land good talent. But as time passed, polarized camps formed on the detrimental impact of a purely dispersed organization, creating a stand-off between some employers and employees. Today, an increasing number of employers are requiring office face time. The current average days in the office requirement is two days a week. But some employers require three days and a select few require five. Employers requiring three or more days per week in office – or who are in harder to commute geographical areas are experiencing greater challenges attracting (and keeping) the high-quality candidates they desire. I don’t see this changing much in 2023.

Candidates have been slow to respond positively to the in-office requirement. But with diminished leverage, fewer remote roles, and a need to pay the bills, they are exhibiting a greater willingness to travel to the office. But buyer beware. Candidates who demonstrate a reluctance to commute will likely leave within 12-18 months once a viable remote opportunity crosses their desk.

Despite the tilt towards the in-office requirement, there are still employers who have moved permanently to a distributed workforce and/or continue to offer remote options for its employees. These employers will attract larger candidate pools and have the edge at the offer stage. To the extent they can out-recruit their competition, we may likely see more employers relax the in-office requirement for lower and mid-level hires. Stay tuned until summer on this trend.


Yep, still happening. And will continue to happen in different variations for a larger part of 2023. The tech industry has been hit the hardest – paying dearly for an Eyes Bigger Than Stomach hiring approach in 2021 and first part of 2022. Lawyers were spared in the first wave of pink slips but became targets in a much larger second wave. When the third wave comes crashing down (and it will), it will take more lawyers with it. It’s hard to predict if there will be a common, vulnerable profile. Over the past several months, the axes have not been discriminating and lawyers from the most junior levels to the most senior have been impacted. In the larger organizations, I anticipate managers of managers and those who are redundant in larger group practice areas. In the startups, it may be junior to mid-level commercial and product lawyers with the General Counsel or two sprinkled in the mix. If the startup and corporate worlds continue to struggle, law firms will take another swing at the junior corporate associates. Hopefully, the market continues to improve, and layoffs become fewer and farther between.

If you believe you may be vulnerable, don’t be catatonic with fear. Control what you can to prepare. At a high level:

(1) Make yourself indispensable in your current role. Do great work, take on more responsibilities; (2) Re-engage with your network and add new members to it; (3) Become more active in your legal and corporate ecosystem; (4) Learn what’s happening in the current legal and corporate markets; (5) Memorialize your professional accomplishments over the last 18 months.

The legal profession and the legal market never cease to evolve, amaze, and teach. Those who have been part of it for more than a spell, have experienced the ups and downs and twists and turns of its evolution that started more materially in 1997. And depending when you ramped on to this Legal highway, the volatility, layoffs, and lack of security may seem like Old Hat. On the flip side, those who are attending this rodeo for the first time, may experience disbelief, helplessness, nausea, extreme panic…and fear.

But fear not!

I have enjoyed a front row seat to this show for 25 years – experiencing the high points and the low points including the dotcom boom, the dotcom bust, stock options backdating crisis, the financial crisis, the post financial crisis boom, the global pandemic, the post pandemic recovery…and the wonky place where we sit today.

And through it all, I can tell you this: You are going to be ok. Your career is going to be ok. Your finances will be ok…and you will survive and thrive and be happy in our marvelous profession. The market will recover. It’s on its way. And there will be jobs that will provide the opportunity to make money, add value, and be inspired.

There will be more ups and downs like this one in years to come. I promise. And each time you tackle them with courage, you will make it through the tougher times a better and more confident professional. So, pop that second Dramamine and let’s get to work with our new market insights to ensure that 2023 is the best year yet!

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