Credit: opolja/

Despite sluggish overall demand for legal services and uncertainty among managing partners about the year ahead, the market for midlevel and senior associates is strong, recruiters say.

Corporate and finance associate hiring is robust, they say. And while litigation work appears to have slowed at many large firms, litigation associates with several years of experience are in high demand.

According to some recruiters, the need for litigators is being driven by boutique and regional firms that use specialized services and lower billing rates to compete with their larger rivals. That, in turn, is also creating vacancies at the larger firms.

“There has been a real uptick in the boutiques hiring very well-credentialed junior and midlevel associates from the larger firms,” said Jacquelyn Knight, a partner at legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa in New York.

Knight said that over the past six months, demand for litigation associates had increased “in many cities, at large firms, midsize firms and boutiques.” Most of the work in major cities is related to securities, financial institution litigation and white-collar crime, she said.

In hot practice areas, applicants with three to five years’ experience or more, technological proficiency and specialized skills such as foreign language fluency are able to command multiple job offers, higher than average starting salaries and signing bonuses, according to the 2016 Legal Salary Guide released last week by Robert Half Legal, a staffing and consulting firm.

Robert Half’s executive director, Charles Volkert, said firms “are looking to hire attorneys that can hit the ground running.”

Nationally, there is high demand for litigation associates, general business and commercial law associates and lawyers with backgrounds in health care regulatory and compliance-related areas, Volkert said. Within litigation, practices such as insurance defense, employment law and commercial litigation and medical malpractice and personal injury are seeing more opportunities. In some markets, real estate and intellectual property lawyers also are highly sought after. Non-partner-track staff lawyers in those specialties also enjoy strong demand, Volkert said.

According to Major Lindsey’s Knight, litigators aren’t the only ones enjoying better-than-expected demand. “A lot of people assume that because of the economy, corporate associate hiring is on the decline, but it is not true,” she said. “We are very busy on the corporate associate front. I think it is going to be a very good year for that group.”

Knight also said that for the first time in many years, there is significant growth in demand for restructuring associates. Hiring of restructuring associates in different cities has doubled in the last three years, she said, some tied to the energy slump. Overall, however, demand at the larger firms is still strongest for corporate and M&A associates, at least in New York, she said.

On the compensation front, Knight said that some litigation boutiques are matching associate compensation at large firms in their markets. For boutiques that offer less, compensation generally runs 15-20 percent below the rates at major firms in the same city, she said.

According to the Am Law 200 annual midlevel associates survey, third-year associates reported an average annual base salary of about $179,000 last year. ALM Intelligence found that the average associate or staff lawyer at firms with more than 150 lawyers earned $165,383 in total compensation last year.

Overall compensation for first-year associates at U.S. firms with 75 or more lawyers rose about 2.7 percent nationally from last year to a range of $116,000 to $143,000, according to last week’s Robert Half report. The company projects an overall salary increase for legal professionals in the U.S. of 3.1 percent in 2016 and 3.5 percent for lawyers at firms, according to a spokeswoman.

Slow hiring and layoffs during the recession created shortages of experienced associates at many firms, although indications are that summer clerkships and summer associate hiring is up and that more new law school graduates are getting job offers than in recent years. The National Association for Law Placement reported last week that 95.3 percent of 2015 summer associates received job offers for 2016, up from 93.4 percent in 2014. NALP found that 59 percent of law firms reported making more offers to summer 2016 associates than the previous year.

About 7,600 more people were employed in legal services in the U.S. in January 2016 than a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.