Cause for Cautious Optimism in a Coronavirus Economy

It is an understatement to say that the current economic climate is “uncertain.”  We are still in the midst of a fluctuating pandemic, a presidential election is only a few months away, and the country is starting to have open dialogues about racial equality.  It is no surprise, then, that many market indicators reveal a volatility borne of the unpredictable times in which we live.

All that being said, for those of you who are looking to move your legal career forward, there are  glimmers of hope.  The numbers for legal jobs, just published for the month of June, are a reason for cautious optimism.  In this article, we will take a brief look at the trajectory of legal jobs over the last few months since the pandemic hit, what the latest jobs numbers tell us, whether there are projections for the future, and what you can do to put your legal search back on track.

As they say, “we’re not out of the woods yet,” but there is a chance that you may be restarting your active legal search sooner rather than later.

A.     Where We Were Just a Few Months Ago

April 2020 was an arduous time for everyone, everywhere.  The April jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed massive job losses to the tune of about 20 million in one month alone.  Jobs in the legal sector were not spared the fallout, shedding about 64,000 jobs.

In addition to the employment losses, many law firms initiated certain cost-saving measures, such as cuts in staff, attorney, and partner compensation.  Firms put mergers and acquisitions on hold, put the brakes on lateral hiring, and pulled back on summer associate programs as well.

The month of May, however, suggested that clouds perhaps have a chance of clearing.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics showed an overall decrease in unemployment of 1.4% in the month of May.  Specifically, the economy added 2.7 million jobs, which included 3,200 in the legal industry.

B.     The June Jobs Report – a Rebound for the Legal Industry

Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics came out with a report for the month of June, and it showed that the U.S. added 4.8 million more jobs, on top of the 2.7 million gained in May.  Of those 4.8 million jobs, 7,500 were in the legal sector.  In addition, the overall unemployment rate fell to 11.1%, which is an improvement from the high of 14.7% unemployment in April.

So, that is good news.  After a massive downturn of over 60,000 legal jobs due to the pandemic, we appear to be slowly working our way back.  Yet, optimism needs to be tempered with a few things to keep in mind.

First, the Labor Statistics numbers are typically captured in the middle of the month.  That means that the surge of coronavirus cases in the south and southwest of the U.S., which occurred largely at the end of the month, may not be reflected in the June monthly report.

Second, there has been speculation of a possible increase in layoffs in states like California, Texas, and Florida due to the recent surge in virus cases.  That said, New York and New Jersey coronavirus numbers appear to be holding steady at a very low level, mainly due to the aggressive way in which northeast states instituted protective health measures.  That is good news for those who seek to continue practicing and working in-house in this region.

C.     Projections for the Future?

The fact that legal jobs are going up rather than down as of now is promising, but the landscape is far too dynamic to clearly see any trend in the short term.  Because we are in the middle of the coronavirus turbulence, too much is in flux to speculate with any confidence regarding the law firm market.

We have seen articles written about contract or project staffing, but it appears to be a trend that has mixed results and mixed success. Primarily, the fundamental sticking point is, what is the economic impact of the use of temporary or contract lawyers in an in house legal department vs. a permanent hire or the continued reliance on outside counsel? Many General Counsel have told us that they have a mandate to cut costs and, as a result, have reduced reliance on outside counsel. While that may not bode well for law firms, in house lawyers at many companies are very busy, and a number of our clients have chosen to actually increase headcount in their law departments.  Since March 2020, Princeton Legal Search Group has been engaged on in house searches across the country and across industries including financial services, commercial real estate, pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceuticals, retirement and benefits planning, healthcare and security.

We believe that there will be continued demand for in house lawyers in regulated industries, including pharmaceuticals, healthcare, financial services, and energy.

D.     Getting Back on Track in Your Legal Search

Putting all of the above together, you can see that we have a mix of news.  Try to avoid stressing about  “what we cannot change and, instead, focus on the things we can change” or influence.

So, what can you focus on to make sure that you are ready?

The first thing you will want to do is take a look at what practice areas might have a higher demand.  Is there room for you to flex your practice to those particular specialties that are marketable like healthcare, labor & employment, bankruptcy, and data privacy?

You are most likely aware that the issue of racial equality is now front and center in our national discussion.  Do you think that you might be able to leverage your own experience with diversity to bring value-add to your resume?  Does your connection to an affinity-based professional group based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or another category make you particularly attractive to companies that are considering diversity and inclusion as part of their hiring equation?


“When a door closes, a window opens.”  If the June job numbers tell us anything, it is to find ways to distinguish yourself so you can make a move to one of the legal opportunities that will become available as the economy recovers.

Updating your resume, Linkedin profile, and cover letters, re-engaging with your network, and legal recruiters are all steps you can be taking now to prepare for your next career advancement. It has been said that “luck is when skill and opportunity meet.” Make sure you are ready when opportunity strikes.