With bright spots in real estate, health care and regulatory work, Chicago's legal community reported a fairly strong first half of 2013 following years of slow recovery. But like most in the Midwest region, the real focus is on whether revenue growth will accelerate so that clients can boost their legal spends overall.

"Companies are beating [earnings] projections, but that's due largely to continued cost-cutting — and law firms live on the debit side of the balance sheet," said J.P. Helder, a legal recruiter at H3 Counsel LLC. "We might have to wait until the fourth quarter to see any real evidence of that."

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