Optimism is the prevailing mood in the Minneapolis legal market. Home to major law firms including Faegre Baker Daniels, Fredrikson & Byron and Dorsey & Whitney, the area has more than 1,760 lawyers working at NLJ 350 law firms.

The metro area benefits from a diverse economic base that ranges from medical-products companies including Medtronic Inc. and high technology manufacturers like 3M Co. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis forecast robust growth for Minnesota with unemployment dropping to 4.7 percent during the fourth quarter, well below the national rate of 7.6 percent.

"The legal market is definitely improving," said Karen Wilmeth, managing director for recruiter Kelly Legal Services in Minneapolis. "It's better than a year ago." She's seeing more hiring for permanent positions as opposed to temporary work. "Budgets are opening up and firms are more willing to pay recruiters' fees for workers." Wilmeth pointed to a number of hot practice areas, including litigation, but also to specialties like trademark and patent work, real estate and contracts administration.

That upbeat outlook was echoed by Ken Cutler, managing partner at Dorsey & Whitney. The 517-attorney firm has about 225 lawyers in Minneapolis. The city is ranked No. 13 in terms of the number of attorneys from NLJ 350 law firms working there.

"Minnesota has not traditionally been a boom-and-bust state," Cutler said, adding that the state ranks second in the country in the number of Fortune 500 companies on a per-capita basis. "We've always been better than the national average on unemployment. Let's face it, legal demand is not booming anywhere, but we're seeing demand up this year."

A number of demand-creating projects unique to Minnesota are catalysts for growth, Cutler said. "You have the public-private partnership in the new Minnesota Vikings football stadium, as well as the Mayo Clinic destination center expansion, which we're involved in." He referred to a planned expansion of the clinic's facilities in Rochester, Minn., about 90 miles away.

Business in more traditional areas also has started accelerating, Cutler said. "Corporate was slow in the first quarter, as was M&A, but that was because a lot of deals closed in the fourth quarter. There's been a nice pick-up over the last couple of months in M&A deals, labor and employment and real estate."

Cutler also pointed to a fringe benefit in the Minneapolis market. Although it's big enough to be a major mover in the Midwest, the market is "small enough to treat people with respect," he said.