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Lawyers, firms want balance, ‘soft skills’

Guest Column

Marisa Ellis

Marisa Ellis is regional vice president at Robert Half Legal in Chicago. Robert Half Legal is a legal staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. The company has offices across North American and the globe. For more information, visit

December 2018

For most of this year, Chicago’s unemployment rate has been indicative of a particularly tight hiring market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Chicago metropolitan area ranks fourth with the highest employment of lawyers, just behind Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York.

With many employers experiencing challenges finding and hiring professionals, law firms and general counsel offices in Chicago are justifiably concerned about holding on to their top talent.

Now they have one more reason to worry: 36 percent of lawyers polled for a recent Robert Half Legal survey said they would make a lateral career move if it came with the promise of higher earnings potential.

To help legal employers and job seekers overcome the issues they are facing, I’d like to share a few of my observations on local employment trends along with national research.

Benchmarking compensation

If you’re an employer, one way to lower your turnover rate is to increase compensation. Is the compensation offered by your firm competitive? Find out with the 2019 Robert Half Legal Salary Guide.

For example, the position of law firm attorney with two to three years of experience has a national annual salary* at the midpoint of $90,250. To adjust that figure for Chicago’s higher cost of living and competition for talent, apply the market variance of 23.5 percent for a total of $111,459.

If you’re an employee looking for a lateral position that involves a pay increase, remember that your future earnings potential is about more than base salary. Take another look at the financial incentives your firm offers.

Balance means happier lawyers

But even bonuses don’t tell the whole story. When survey respondents were asked which incentives would most entice them to look for a lateral move, work/life balance (29 percent) and professional autonomy (13 percent) were cited as other top factors.

Since much of the legal profession is driven by billable hours and demanding clients, this may not come as a surprise. Out of the eight industries in our Work Happy study, legal specialists reported the highest level of stress.

Another Robert Half Legal survey asked lawyers what one thing they would change about their job; 42 percent said they would appreciate less workplace stress and 22 percent wanted fewer hours at work or more personal time. Indeed, I’m noticing more attorneys are happy to get off the partner track and are either taking the in-house route or rebranding themselves as legal consultants.

To keep top talent from burning out and jumping ship, consider programs to help employees juggle their professional and personal lives and examine what other changes could be made to create a worker-friendly organizational culture.

Hot specialties if on the move

Legal hiring is active nationwide, but one practice area stands out. A recent Robert Half Legal survey asked U.S.-based lawyers what area of law would produce the greatest number of legal jobs in the second half of 2018.

Fifty-two percent of attorneys cited litigation. Closer to home, I’ve also observed an increased need for legal professionals in transactional law, such as real estate, compliance and mergers and acquisitions.

If you’re a legal professional looking for a new challenge in Chicago, you’ll also find opportunities in civil litigation, personal injury, commercial litigation, contracts, business immigration/labor and employment and financial services.

Soft skills employers want

Employers in the legal field have long sought attorneys with an impressive work history. It’s helpful if candidates come with a portable book of business and are licensed to practice in Illinois and even Indiana.

But lately I’ve seen a demand for new hires with exceptional soft skills. While litigators need to possess top-notch public speaking abilities, law firms and companies also want legal professionals — and not just lawyers — who can present to clients, peers, shareholders and senior management.

If you’re an employee looking to make a lateral move, make sure your legal resume highlights your verbal communication skills and technical proficiency in a presentation software.

Regardless of which side of the hiring desk you sit on, knowing the latest employment trends can give you an edge in today’s market.

* A midpoint starting salary refers to a candidate with average experience and the necessary skills to get the job done. The role will likely be of average complexity or in a market where the competition for talent is moderate.