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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.”

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