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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

July 6, 2016

What is the hiring cycle for the in house legal market?

Julie Q. Brush

15+ years ago the hiring market for in house lawyers was fairly predictable and cyclical in nature. The bulk 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 summer and throughout August, the first lull was in full force. September and October usually saw an uptick 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 July and August, but as a whole there’s far more activity than in years past. The following months are more active with new openings, replacement hires – and interviews pushing through the holidays.

So what accounts for the change? There are five primary factors:

1. Expanding In House Legal Departments.

With the fast expansion of the in house legal department, companies are hiring more lawyers. They are also expanding the practice areas housed in the department – which necessitates additional hires. Given this increased coverage, the timing of these hires can be reactive: in response to the needs of the organization. So new headcount typically can arise throughout the year.

2. Increased Legal Department Budgets.

Legal Department stock has gone way up over the last decade. And more than ever, executives and board of directors appreciate the critical value Legal brings to the table. Consequently, there is stronger support for larger, dedicated in house legal teams. With the expansion of the corporate legal department, budgets have increased (although GCs would argue they are still pretty tight). Bigger budgets mean more money to hire lawyers when needed…regardless of the time of year.

3. Lawyers Are Mobile.

Today’s lawyers are more mobile than ever. The profession…and hiring managers are more socialized around it so changing jobs is no longer a straight line off the career cliff. 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.

4. 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 still pumping money into the market and investing in promising companies. IPO activity is coming out of hibernation well. As a result, more companies are growing and creating an infrastructure for their day in the IPO/liquidity event 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.

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 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 rigid cycles 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 candidates will welcome and warmly embrace.

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