Across the nation's midsection, the terrain is distinctly uneven. Detroit's recent bankruptcy underscores the legal industry's difficulties there, especially since local law firms expect big outside firms to grab most of the legal work. Chicago, on the other hand, demonstrates strong signs of an improving economy. Indiana-based law firms are turning to outside markets to expand their legal services offerings. We've tracked those markets and others in this survey of the successes and struggles throughout the Midwest.
When Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history on July 19, it served as stark evidence that the regional economy has yet to recover from the Great Recession. The city's continuing troubles have hammered law firms heavily dependent on automakers for corporate work and employment litigation.
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.
Optimism is the prevailing mood in the Minneapolis legal market. Home to major law firms including Faegre Baker Daniels, Fredrikson & Byron and Dorsey & Whitney, the area has more than 1,760 lawyers working at NLJ 350 law firms.
Behind Milwaukee's well-known brand names is a local manufacturing economy that's still working hard to emerge from the economic doldrums. "It's taken a long time to move out of the Great Recession, and the same can be said for the legal market," said Foley & Lardner chairman Jay Rothman.
The Indianapolis legal market is still struggling in a post-recession economy. Local firms that want to expand are looking elsewhere, where better opportunities —; and higher billing rates — offer a more promising climate for growth. Ice Miller anticipates adding attorneys in its corporate, real estate, intellectual property and labor practices in Chicago and Cleveland, according to chief managing partner Phillip Bayt.
Affordable hourly rates and an economy that is moving along at a respectable clip are driving demand for legal services in St. Louis. The city of 318,000 people has an unemployment rate of 7 percent, below the national number of 7.6 percent, and its economy grew at a "modest pace" during 2012, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve.
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.
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 area's legal market suffered an attorney headcount drop of 4 percent last year — the largest among the nation's 25 biggest legal markets.