Cleveland was one of the cities hardest hit by the Great Recession, and the effects linger still. The metropolitan area lost 5,600 jobs between May 2012 and May 2013, ranking No. 1 in the country in terms of job losses, according to recent U.S. Labor Depart­ment reports.
Still, the local legal community comprises more than 1,500 lawyers practicing at NLJ 350 firms including Jones Day; Baker & Hostetler; and Calfee, Halter & Griswold. The NLJ 350 measures the nation's largest law firms by headcount.
"The legal market is pretty flat in terms of activity," said Steven Kaufman, managing member of Kaufman & Co., a commercial litigation firm. "There's an abundance of lawyers and a shrinking pie of locally produced business — more lawyers trying for less work. That's the big picture."
Client companies are carefully watching their legal spends. "Even businesses with growing sales are being very careful on their spend, because of nervousness about the recovery. So companies that may have pursued claims or litigated matters in the past are much less inclined to do it now, unless it's critical," Kaufman said. "In general, there's a decline in litigation activity. Firms that have positioned themselves as specialists in a demand area are in a better position to get work that is available."
Demand mostly centers on employment litigation and multidistrict mass torts, Kaufman said. He described mergers and acquisitions as flat and real estate as "coming back." Lagging areas include general business litigation, bankruptcy and intellectual property litigation.
Cleveland firms continue to "right size" through layoffs, but not in large numbers, Kaufman added.
Despite the challenges, the president of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Associ­ation sees the "gloom and doom" take on Cleveland as a tired cliché.
"From my perspective, Cleveland is a vibrant and growing area," said Jonathan Leiken, a Jones Day partner. Attendance was way up during the group's last annual meeting. "Generally, we'd get 300 to 400 attendees, but this year we had 1,200," he said. "There's a lot of interest in our legal community from all parts of the Cleveland economy." With 208 lawyers, Jones Day's office is the largest in the region.
One area of growth in Leiken's practice is representing companies hit with government investigations — ­work that has taken him to Brazil, China, India and Russia. An example of a slow practice area, he said, is outside-counsel work for the government "as the government looks to spend less."