Kansas City, Mo.'s once giant meatpacking and rail-heavy economy has been transforming into a diverse mix that includes professional services, finance and technology. Yet the transition isn't happening quickly enough.

Last year, the area's legal market suffered an attorney headcount drop of 4 percent — the largest among the nation's 25 biggest legal markets, The National Law Journal reported in June. The reason? Still too much dependency on heavy manufacturing and telecommunications sectors struggling to regain traction.

"Kansas City and the general economy have been on an upswing in fits and starts," said Mark Hinderks, managing partner of Stinson Morrison Hecker. "We're not a boom-and-bust kind of town, and right now and we're not coming back in a boom mode. The level of business activity has been rising slowly." Activity at his firm in corporate finance and securities, litigation and environmental law has been steady, he said.

About 1,300 lawyers from the largest 350 law firms in the nation work in Kansas City, which equates to about 1 percent of all lawyers at the 350 firms across the country. The law firm with the biggest Kansas City office is Shook, Hardy & Bacon, with 278 attorneys.

There remain some bright spots among the city's fastest-growing companies, according to reporting by The Kansas City Star. Cerner Corp., a digital health-care record specialist, now employs roughly 9,000 employees in the area, having added 3,000 during the past two years. And the revolution in natural gas extraction has introduced a number of energy firms. Two years ago, Google Inc. chose the area as the launch site for its new regional Internet fiber network that's going online now.

All this infrastructure investment will pay off in the long run, legal experts believe, but for now, Kansas City law firms are keeping a tight grip on costs and focusing hiring on experienced attorneys with solid client followings.

Stinson Morrison has seen a comeback in banking and finance work but has yet to experience any upswing in litigation, Hinderks said.

"Our hiring of brand-new lawyers is still very conservative­ — maybe seven to eight this year and 23 laterals," he said.

J.P. Helder of H3 Counsel LLC legal recruiters said the local economy's laggard sectors have had "a chilling effect" on attorney hiring in the metro area as a whole.

"There's been some pickup in finance and real estate nationally, but that's not translating in a big way to the Mid­western economy," he said.

— Lisa Holton