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Legal Sector Adds Jobs for Third Month in Slow Pandemic Recovery

Dec. 4, 2020, 5:20 PM

The U.S. legal sector scored a slight uptick in jobs in November, the third consecutive month of modest gains in mostly law firm jobs, as the economy struggled to recover from damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Legal payrolls added a seasonally adjusted 5,000 people, after increasing by 4,800 in October and 3,000 in September, according to Labor Department figures released Friday. Numbers were flat in August.

The U.S. overall added 245,000 jobs, less than half of the 610,000 in October, according to the Labor Department. The figures come amid a widespread surge in coronavirus cases and new restrictions on restaurants and other public-facing businesses.

Elite law firms such as Kirkland & Ellis have been hiring experienced lawyers from the government and other firms to bolster or build in-demand practices. Gibson Dunn, for example, recently hired the Securities and Exchange Commission’s former chief counsel, who had been working at Sidley Austin.

A number of major firms reversed pay cuts dispensed early in the pandemic and in recent weeks gave hefty year-end bonuses to associates. White shoe firms like Davis Polk & Wardwell have lined up to match industry standard setter Cravath Swaine & Moore in distributing awards.

A Wells Fargo Private Bank Legal Specialty Group survey found that the biggest law firms had a big bump in their revenues, to 7.6% in the first nine months of the year.

Law firms are hardly free of struggles, however. Overall, legal industry employment remains around 1.1 million, slightly lower than the seasonally adjusted figure of 1.15 million in November 2019.

Recent disclosures show that some major law firms, including Boies Schiller Flexner, got millions in loans from the stimulus program the federal government instituted to protect jobs threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Small Business Administration earlier this week released details of the Paycheck Protection Program under a court order.

Many firms have been making austerity moves, lopping off a number of legal professionals, particularly secretaries, and leaning more on technology. Some workers were initially furloughed, then later laid off, after firms reevaluated their operations.

Some corporate legal departments have also laid off employees, especially support staff and paralegals, as they adjust to the new remote working landscape and lower company budgets. Employment in legal occupations, a separate indicator that tracks total legal jobs across the workforce and is not seasonally adjusted, declined over the month.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson at
To contact the editor on this story: Chris Opfer at;
John Hughes at