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The legal industry may be ready to hang out the “help wanted” sign after two years of downsizing and scaled back recruiting. That is the conclusion of a recent survey by the legal staffing division of Robert Half International Co. and legal recruiters, who have seen an uptick in demand for their services by law firms and corporate legal departments. ( Hat tip: The Recorder’s Legal Pad blog.)

Thirty-one percent of respondents to the latest Robert Half Legal Hiring Index, a quarterly survey, indicated that they plan to add jobs in the first quarter of 2011–that’s a 7 point increase over those respondents who said they would add jobs in the fourth quarter of 2010. (Survey takers consisted of 100 lawyers at law firms with 20 or more employees, and 100 corporate lawyers at companies with 1,000 or more employees; all respondents have hiring responsibilities.) Of those with plans to hire, 91percent identified attorney jobs as the positions they plan to fill. Additionally, the 31 percent of respondents who expect to add jobs in the upcoming quarter far surpasses the 1 percent who anticipate a decrease in legal staff. “The survey results are certainly positive for the legal industry as a whole,” says Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal. “It shows some confidence returning to the legal marketplace.” Other legal recruiters agree that renewed, though tepid, confidence has returned to the industry. They point to an increase in calls from law firms looking to hire associates and an increased number of active searches now as compared to earlier in the year and in late 2010. “We’re seeing more people getting offers and accepting offers,” says Margie Grossberg a New York-based partner at legal search firm Major Lindsey & Africa. “We think this trend will continue and accelerate once we hit 2011.”

T.J. Duane, a recruiter with legal industry search firm Lateral Link, which conducts attorney searches for law firms and corporate legal departments, says the increased activity is substantially greater this year. Duane points to a dramatic spike in the number of searches his company currently is handling as evidence of recovery in the sector. “Right now we have over 700 active law firm openings that we are working on across the country and in some international markets,” he says. “This time last year we were working on about 200 openings.” The increased demand for legal talent, these recruiters says, is driven by greater activity in several practice areas, including corporate, litigation, labor and employment, and healthcare, as well as by law firms’ limited capacity to meet that increased demand because of layoffs and defferrals. “There are some law firms where people are working a huge number of hours,” says Karen Kupetz, a Los Angeles based recruiter at Solutus Legal Search, “and we are getting calls from [AmLaw 200] firms saying, ‘we need help.’” Last month, The National Law Journal, a sibling publication, reported that the total number of associates at the country’s 250 largest law firms declined by 1.5 percent between 2009 and 2010 (that was slightly more than the 1.1 percent drop in overall attorney headcount). This year’s numbers follow a historic drop in headcount at the country’s 250 largest firms between 2008 and 2009. In November 2009, the NLJ reported, overall attorney headcount among the NLJ 250 fell by 5,259 to 126,669. While some law firms are looking to hire again, they are proceeding with caution, say several recruiters. And the Robert Half survey results support this–fifty-two percent of respondents reported difficulty in finding skilled legal professionals. According to Volkert at Robert Half, this suggests that while law firms and legal corproate departments may have openings, they are mostly interested in candidates who are currently employed.

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