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Legal Sector Jobs Dip Even as Employment Nationally Improves

April 2, 2021, 4:30 PM

U.S. legal services employment registered a small job dip in March, diverging from a strong rise last month.

Legal payrolls in March were down a seasonally adjusted 1,400 jobs, according to Labor Department figures released Friday. The decline followed the addition of 7,200 jobs in February and 4,800 in January.

The figures continue the up-and-down nature of the past year for employment in law firms and other offices that hire lawyers amid some recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic damage. The sector’s total employment remains at a little over 1 million employees, about the same as a year ago.

Some workers tied to physical operations were furloughed when offices were shuttered, as lawyers and other staff forged ahead with work from their homes. Going forward, operations remain in flux as firms try to create a safe workplace and sort out whether they can mandate vaccinations for lawyers and staff.

Overall, U.S. economy gained 916,000 jobs in March and the national unemployment rate edged down to 6% from 6.2%. The gains reflected more accessible vaccinations nationwide, increased business openings and the beginning of another round of stimulus checks.

Hiring rose most dramatically in hospitality industry, where many restaurants and hotels had shuttered and are now gradually returning to more normal operations. The uptick, noted in Labor Department data in mid-March, coincided with the time period in which the new economic package was approved by Congress and signed into law.

Even so around 9 million Americans remained outside the workforce, a number which is nearly twice as many as before the pandemic.

March’s job losses in the legal industry were higher than in December, which had most recent decline in numbers. That month, payrolls slipped by 200 jobs as the virus and the holiday season took a toll.

While law firms are vigorously poaching rainmaking lawyers in coveted specialties from other firms, most of those hires are partners who are prepared to work from a remote office—at least for now.

Some large firms that employ hundreds of people are downsizing spacious offices that were designed to impress and court clients who are no longer gathering routinely for physical events.

International law firm Womble Bond Dickinson is moving ahead with plans to reduce its office space by 50% in its 18 U.S. locations. The firm, headquartered in Winston-Salem, N.C., had flat revenue growth and has a remote working policy for lawyers and staff.

Another firm, Goodwin Procter, is eschewing the physical office by hiring associates to work remotely in cities across the country, including Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. The firm has indicated it is responding to client demands, including technology clients located in Austin and Miami. Such remote associates would travel to the firm’s physical offices around a half-dozen times a year to make in-person connections with colleagues they would otherwise not see.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson at egolson1@gmail.com
To contact the editor on this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloombergindustry.com;
John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com