Recruiting strategies and blended roles among legal staffing trends

As law firms and companies expand legal teams to pursue new business opportunities, competition is intensifying for job seekers with in-demand skills and niche backgrounds, according to Robert Half Legal. The firm’s Salary Guide found applicants with expertise in high-growth practice areas and industry sectors, including commercial law and healthcare, are seeing greater-than-average starting salaries, signing bonuses and multiple offers.

“Employers are placing a premium on associates and paralegals who can assume full caseloads and deliver quality results to clients,” said Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal. “The most sought after legal professionals possess three to five-plus years of experience in a hot practice area, technological proficiency, and strong interpersonal skills.”

Here are five hiring trends in the legal field, according to Robert Half Legal research:

  1. Recruiting and retention strategies are more essential. As baby boomers begin to exit the workforce and vacate leadership roles, employers are re-evaluating succession plans and focusing on how to become more attractive to Gen Z workers.
  2. Employers are enhancing benefits. Law firms and companies are emphasizing greater flexibility, training, career advancement opportunities and other perks valued by job seekers, such as telecommuting and business casual dress codes.
  3. Hybrid or blended paralegal/legal secretary roles are more common. Aside from practice area experience, the most marketable legal support professionals have strong technology skills and are able to perform multiple job functions.
  4. Foreign language skills are in demand. In certain markets, bilingual abilities, including Spanish language skills, have become increasingly vital for attorneys and legal support professionals.
  5. The market is improving for junior-level attorneys. While hiring has not yet returned to pre-recession levels, many law firms are expanding summer clerkship programs and hiring newly minted associates who can meet client demands for lower bill rates.

Volkert added that employers are more willing to negotiate compensation and benefits to attract and retain top talent. “Offering competitive pay, interesting work and advancement opportunities are highly effective strategies for improving employee engagement and reducing turnover,” he said.

Career Navigation: Effective Communication

According to a study by Harvard Business, 80% of our workplace issues can be attributed to the lack of interpersonal skills and not the competencies of the parties.  Interpersonal skills are critically important – a key one of which, that makes or breaks one’s level of effectiveness, is communication. People speak, people listen, yet there is more happening in every interaction than what initially appears on the surface. 

Another study sites the fact that, typically, people make a quick assessment of one another within the first seven seconds of meeting.  A strong first impression counts. What are you communicating?  

One might say the art of effective communication is comprised of listening intently, responding appropriately, exhibiting enthusiasm, and mutually understanding each other’s thoughts and emotions. 

Here are the 10 most common problems in communication:

  1. Initial rapport is not established with listeners.
  2. Body movements are stiff or wooden.
  3. Material is presented intellectually, not involving the audience emotionally.
  4. Speaker seems uncomfortable due to fear of failure.
  5. Eye contact and facial expression are poorly utilized.
  6. Humor is lacking.
  7. Speaker’s intentions are not made clear due to improper preparation.
  8. Silence is not used for impact.
  9. Energy is low, resulting in ineffective pitch pattern, speech rate and volume.
  10. Distractedness.

And here are the 5 Essentials of a great communicator:

  1. Being fully present.
  2. Being prepared.
  3. Making others comfortable.
  4. Being committed.
  5. Being interesting.

Whether you are simply meeting someone for the first time, or you are engaging in business development, client service, interviewing, leading, managing, responding to RFP’s, or presenting before a group, first impressions are important and strong communication skills are critical.  

What impression do you make on others?  Are you as effective as you could be in conversation? Are you hearing all that is being said and are you communicating all that you want to communicate and nothing you don’t?  Communication is a skill, and like all skills must be honed. Make sure to communicate as effectively as you can in order to gain the most from each conversation, and portray yourself the way you want to be perceived.

Lawyers and Business Acumen

The state of constant change is a business reality.  Executives need and want to hire a lawyer with strong business acumen.  We hear and see that need often in job descriptions and interviews. Yet what does business acumen mean and how do you know if you have it?

The typical company has undertaken multiple enterprise-wide changes in the last few years from restructuring, expansion into new markets, and leadership transitions.  Lawyers now work with more stakeholders on more new legal issues across more global offices than ever before, and corporate employees in all functions agree that the work environment is changing faster than ever.

A lawyer’s performance in supporting a company as it shifts directions is business acumen.  And, typically, this is a new skill to hone for most lawyers. The issue is not that lawyers are not smart enough.  Lawyers have been schooled, trained, and rewarded for activities such as writing, reporting, following procedures, presenting, communicating, and adhering to principles.  These are all activities and skills that provide value when an environment is stable.

By contrast, a shifting, changing environment requires capability in entrepreneurial thinking, planning, organizing, leading, creating, innovating, formulating strategy, achieving objectives, adapting, and readjusting with setbacks.  Typically, lawyers are unprepared for this behavior in a fluid environment.  

The positive message is that lawyers are smart and these skills can be learned, trained and coached.  The key skills that can assist lawyers to be adaptable and flexible in the face of change are:

  1.  Career Development Plans.

Rising lawyers need direct exposure to different business challenges if they are to learn and become more agile.  Too often they are working in a silo, working on and seeing only pieces of the issue. By intentionally providing a diverse set of experiences and projects for beginning, mid-level and senior lawyers, development opportunities are less likely to fall to the wayside for day-to-day urgencies.  

  1. Broaden the Experience Base.

Grooming leaders who can understand the impact of change on the business and adapt accordingly requires lawyers to spend time outside the legal cocoon.  Diversify their experience by working on client boards, or other client industry focused boards. Lawyers will get exposure to strategy and governance issues while the organization benefits via instant access to legal advice.  The greater exposure a lawyer can have into the endless range of business choices that senior business leaders face in deciding a course of action.

  1. Provide Experience.

It is powerful learning to when one can take the wheel and steer through an actual business challenge.  This experience learning may take the form of intentional role playing within the career development plan.  The ability to try what one has learned or to experience the trial and error effects of decisions provides hands-on learning that can be drawn upon when one is in the real situation.

The ability to adapt to change is crucial for lawyers who are navigating today’s complex and fluid business environment.  General counsel who design career development plans for their team, facilitate exposure to other parts of the business/operations, and train by providing hands-on experiences will build solid lawyers for the future.  

Career Moves: Moving In-House

In-House Career Paths – the potential issues to career happiness

It seems more and more private practice lawyers want to move in-house.  Even if lawyers successfully make that transition, they are often surprised to find that it isn’t necessarily the path to long term career happiness.  In-house lawyers face different career path issues than their private law firm peers. Rather than finding more job security and opportunity for advancement, they may have less.  Corporate counsels’ futures are tied to the fortunes of a single entity in a volatile marketplace. Furthermore, corporate legal departments are hierarchical with one general counsel, one division counsel, and so on.  While theoretically, law firms may elect an unlimited number of partners, often road blocked, in-house lawyers may wait quite some time, if ever, to progress within their current law department.

Potential Career Path Issues

  1.  Job Security. 

If you are in-house, stay proactive.  Keep your eye on what is going on with your company in the marketplace.  The in-house lawyers’ job security can be at risk because law departments are at the mercy of upper management’s business strategies and economic forces beyond their control.  For example, after a merger, sale, acquisition, or reorganization of all or part of the company, the law department may be eliminated or “duplicative” attorneys let go. Even if the legal department isn’t disbanded, new management may bring in its own team of senior executives including legal personnel.  Often companies or divisions relocate, requiring unwanted transfers. If a business declines, a division or entire company may downsize. Start-ups may not get their funding and need to cut back. The law department frequently is among the first to go because it’s a cost rather than profit center, and may even be viewed as an impediment to accomplishing business goals.  And, of course, entire businesses or divisions simply may shut down, leaving everyone without a job. The more aware you are, the more you can plan appropriately.  

  1.  Automatic Advancement. 

Despite the many perks of working in-house, even at a financially stable company, you need to realize that there could still be one big drawback, very little room at the top.  Corporations usually employ fewer lawyers than big law firms and in-house law departments tend to be organizationally flat. Advancement depends on a number of factors mostly out of your control, such as the size and structure of the department, the age of its attorneys, the health of the company, trends in the industry, or a combination thereof.  If your boss is competent, healthy, happy, and not close to retirement age, there is nowhere to go. Therefore, even doing prodigious amounts of great work may not move you up the ranks.

Options to Counter Potential Career Path Issues.

How does one detour these potential obstacles on the in-house road to career happiness?  Options might include changing departments and career paths or sticking it out while redefining goals and expectations.

  1.  Changing Departments/Career Paths.

If your career path is blocked either by a lack of job security of a dead end situation, you might change course by leveraging your business skills and moving from the legal department to another department such as compliance, general management, human resources, sales, or marketing.  For some lawyers, their initial goal was to segue out of the practice of law by moving from a law firm to an in-house legal department position and then transitioning to the business side of the corporation. For others, that trajectory occurs as a career necessity.

If you think you might want to pursue the business-side option, look for companies where lawyers made such moves in the past.  Some organizations have track records of transitioning their in-house lawyers into management or executive roles, while others virtually never do.  Once hired, the lawyer needs to

  • Network within the company so many people in many departments know them
  • Learn as many aspects of the business as possible
  • Communicate their professional development desires goals.  

We often help road blocked lawyers to springboard to a higher position in another company’s legal department, either in the same industry or a different sector where their skills transfer.  Some lawyers fear that specializing in an industry may pigeonhole them, resulting in fewer career options when much of the time it is exactly the opposite effect and a specialized industry lawyer is more attractive.  To increase potential future opportunities in a specialized industry, choose an industry positioned for growth such as healthcare, eldercare, high technology or energy.

  1.  Same Position, Increased Satisfaction. 

Alternatively, if you are in a secure but dead-end position you can seek other avenues of success without changing jobs.  Instead, look outside your current position to find skill development opportunities. Some lawyers achieve personal satisfaction by making speeches and writing articles or polishing their expertise and becoming their company’s go-to authority on an arcane but necessary subject.  Other lawyers enjoy mentoring within their companies or participate outside organizations by teaching at a local law school, college or paralegal program. Perhaps there is a cause you can assist with on a pro bono basis. Or, you might achieve recognition through a bar association or community leadership.  If you shift your expectations of your current position fulfilling all of your career satisfaction needs, a rich and rewarding career is possible without leaving your current position.  

While many lawyers seek the advantages of an in-house law career, it can present roadblocks and dead ends just like opportunities in private practice, governmental and non-profit jobs.  Keep these considerations in mind as you weigh your career options and plan your next career moves.

Career Moves: What Lateral Partners Need to Know

“The candidate wants our position.”  Historically, it was thought that a lateral partner would move to another firm because they were disgruntled.  This basic premise is false. It is a lot of work to move one’s practice and simple unhappiness is typically not a big enough reason to make a move.  Rather, a lateral partner moves their practice to another firm because of the platform; the opportunity to increase one’s clients, expand services to current clients, and increased income.

With a common misnomer of “a law firm, is a law firm, is a law firm” how does a lateral even evaluate a “better fit” or better platform?  Many times an interview process consists of both sides putting on shiny faces and discussing or exchanging surface information. On the surface, firms can look similar.  By digging a little deeper it is easy to see that not all firms are alike. And, the fact is, some firms are a better fit for certain people than others.

Senior lawyers whose compensation is based on a combination of individual performance and firm performance, whose practices are portable and whose client relationships are strong, need to know a lot more about a prospective opportunity.  And it is okay to ask!

After all, the firm where the lateral partner candidate wants to be is one that values lawyers who make important decisions based upon gathered information at the appropriate time.  The firm where the candidate does not want to be is one that does not want to provide the information.

The lateral partner candidate does not need to produce a formal questionnaire to get answers to questions.  Rather, the lateral partner wants to pay attention to all of the conversations, as to pick up bits and pieces of information along the way.

Some information is time sensitive and the best time to exchange that information is when the firm serves up their Lateral Partner Questionnaire; in a sense an “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”  exchange. In this way, the exchange of sensitive information can seem less awkward and continues the good faith effort and interest on both sides to continue conversation.

Here is the Lateral Partner Checklist; the questions that will ensure the collection of the relevant information a lateral partner will need to evaluate a prospective firm/opportunity:

Firm Governance/Leadership Structure

  • What are the committees?  How are people elected to the committees and are there term limits?  Is the firm organized by practice groups or locations? What and where are the profit centers?  What is the firm management structure (in addition to lawyer managers?)
  • Ask for information on the number of partners, associates and support staff.  How are people staffed on matters? What is the compensation structure including billable hour expectations for associates and staff?  What is the attrition rate/longevity of partners, associates, staff?  
  • What is the firm’s mission?  Core Values? Differentiators/uniques?

Growth Strategy/Lateral Hiring

  • What is the success rate in hiring laterals?  How many has the firm hired? What is the attrition?  Why?
  • What is the strategic plan over the next 1, 3, 10 years?
  • What is the potential/interest in merging?
  • What practice areas are targeted for growth?
  • What practices are of interest to add or contract within the firm?    

Financial Information

  • What are the firm’s liabilities?  (including debt and leases)
  • What is the make-up of the firm’s annual billings – what clients make up what % of the firm’s revenue/billings annually?  If there is a short list of clients that make up the majority of the firm’s billings, you may want to ask more questions.
  • What are the firm’s billing rates for all lawyers, associates and partners?  Review the billing rate differences for practice groups and locations.
  • Alternative fee schedules.  Is the firm using alternative billings for clients?  In what practice groups? With what clients? Do individual lawyers have flexibility to make these decisions in their own practices?
  • The following data should be collected for the current year and the last two years:
    1. Profit per partner
    2. Revenue per partner
    3. Average billable hours – partners
    4. Average billable hours – associates  
  • Ask for copies of financial statements for the last three years.


  • What is the partnership structure?
  • What is the retirement policy?  Is there a mandatory policy? Is there a payout?
  • What are the business development expectations?  How is business origination allocated (by client or by matter?)
  • Is there credit given to administrative duties?  Pro bono activities? Marketing activities?  
  • What is the compensation system?  Is it open or closed? How are decisions made?
  • What is the timing of payouts to partners (when draws are made, bonuses distributed)?
  • Is there and what is the capital contribution?  What is the condition of repayment?
  • How is succession planning thought of/practiced?
  • Ask for a copy of the partnership agreement.

Practice Growth:  Marketing/Business Development

  • What is the marketing support available?  Are their marketing budgets per partner? Is their internal business development support available?  Are there examples of marketing/business development success for partners?
  • Learn about cross-selling philosophies, practices, success stories.
  • Professional Development – What coaching/learning/training opportunities are available/supported?
  • What is the pro bono philosophy?
  • Community involvement philosophy?

Timing is everything.  It is easy to scare off or offend an attractive prospect by coming on too strong too fast.  Use your judgment in soliciting information. Prepare for meetings and ask good questions along the way.  Everyone’s time is valuable so use each visit, each conversation wisely. With each interaction, you want to come away with more tangible information that you can use to evaluate the opportunity and ultimately make a good career decision.