2012 Mid-Year California Hiring Outlook

2012 Mid-Year California Hiring Outlook

The legal job market is a moving target.  Various areas of practice heat up or cool down depending upon a variety of factors including the economy in general, changes in the law (or judicial interpretation), and the growth or decline of industry in particular geographic areas.  So, what areas of practice are hot right now, and where can you find those jobs?  Let’s take a look at what SeltzerFontaine’s clients are seeking to hire.

Overall, there is a significant uptick in demand in recent months over what we saw in the previous 18 months, but primarily in certain practice areas.  The greatest number of openings is in IP practice including prosecution, litigation and transactions.  Most of these positions are in the San Francisco Bay Area (especially Silicon Valley), followed next by Los Angeles and Orange County, and then San Diego.  The total number of positions in the Bay Area is almost double what they were last year.

The next two busiest practice areas are corporate and litigation with approximately the same number of openings each.  The number of litigation positions in Los Angeles and Orange County have increased over last year, as have corporate openings which increased in both Los Angeles/Orange County and, especially, in the Bay Area, including Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

The uptick in corporate positions reflects the increased number of deals being done as well as an upturn in investment and lending. In California, there is a trend toward mid-size private equity deals with the Bay Area being one of the strongest and largest markets in the US.

Technology-related M&A deal work, particularly in the middle market, is one area where firms are hiring laterals and focusing on business development. Tech-related capital markets deals, like Facebook Inc.'s first public offering, are another. Some see promise in the state's clean energy projects, leading to more project finance work.

Los Angeles also is beginning to see a small uptick in middle-market M&A deals ranging from $150 million in enterprise value to $1 billion across industries.  For one law firm, its corporate practice in the Bay Area and Los Angeles was more robust than in markets where the firm is more focused on larger-cap M&A and capital markets transactions, such as New York.  Larger transactions, such as capital raising by private and public companies outside the tech sector, and general corporate work, including corporate governance and commercial contracting, continue to be soft in California and across the country.

One huge global firm says that the firm's volume of corporate business - dominated in California by high-tech and life sciences matters - is up this year over the same period last year.  The firm’s global reach affords the advantage of involvement in cross-border transactions.  The firm also picked up strategic new hires, including a number of tech partners.

Labor and employment remained strong nationally, even during the downturn.  The number of Fair Labor Standards Act cases filed in federal court between 2010 and 2011 increased more than 15%, according to the latest Federal Judicial Caseload Statistics. Wage and hour lawsuits filed over the last 10 years increased by more than 325%.  The managing shareholder of a leading labor and employment boutique said Southern California has been the most active area in the state for labor and employment litigation.  Wage and hour class action cases continue to require droves of lawyers to defend them.

Real estate leasing and acquisitions increased as a result of the growth of Silicon Beach - a cluster of tech start-ups in and around Santa Monica - and other economic activity.  Consequently, we have seen more demand for associates.  But relative to other practice areas, real estate remains slow.

There is not much demand for bankruptcy, but one bankruptcy partner in a global firm with a large LA office says he expects to see more middle market and corporate Chapter 11 work in 2012, nationally and locally, as bond and debt maturities come due.  In California, he expects an increase in real estate restructuring work as the depressed market starts to hit more commercial and larger developments. As the practice picks up, he said, he also expects some lateral hiring

Despite improvement in the market in some practice areas, law firms can afford to be extremely selective in their hiring practices, particularly those in the upper echelons of prestige and profitability.  Candidates must have the best credentials and on-point work experience.   Smaller firms are hiring to some extent but they, too, can afford to be picky.

With regard to the partner market, law firms continue to want to add partners with books of business that are verifiable and profitable.  As a partner from a regional firm said at the recent National Association of Legal Recruiters (NALSC) conference, “We’ve got quality lawyers.  We’re looking for quality clients.” There is greater scrutiny of financials and client portability than we saw in the boom years.  Firms will look at any practice that is complementary or synergistic to their existing practices. In general, law firms attempt to add business generating partners and shed unproductive ones.

We also have been engaged to fill a number of in-house legal positions.  Some are in smaller privately-owned companies seeking to start or expand their in-house capability, and others are established institutions continuing their significant in-house legal functions. The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) 2011 Census Report showed that, over the last five years, there was a growing tendency of law departments to handle their legal issues internally.  This trend is consistent with the overall efforts of corporations to cut costs and rely less on outside counsel.

Valerie Fontaine
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