Like the proverbial rose that grew from the crack in the concrete, the legal industry continues to demonstrate its resilience.

Not long ago, the profession had developed a reputation for being a barren job market saturated with attorneys, especially for young associates. But backed by evidence of healthy hiring and recruiting practices, many in the industry are saying that the sun is starting to shine again.

“2021 has been a strong year for a lot of law firms and legal departments, and we will continue to see the rise in 2022, as well,” said Nikki Green, founder of the legal recruiting firm Ave Staffing in Raleigh, which helps staff law firms and fill in-house positions with attorneys in nearly all practice areas.

Green said that clients’ demands this year are significantly higher than last year’s, and lawyers with three to five years of experience in litigation, real estate, family law, trust and estates, intellectual property, business, and employment law are at the top of her clients’ wish lists.

Rosario Canales, the firm’s digital marketing specialist, said that clients are bouncing back from a disappointing 2020 often through creative means.

“To stay competitive a lot of employers have broadened their staffing efforts to seek talent in other regions, especially for remote roles,” Canales said. “Legal departments use legal contractors/consultants in order to meet their teams’ increasing demands.”

Remote possibilities

The legal field was dramatically—possibly permanently—changed by a pandemic that forced it to adapt to new ways of doing business. Remote work was instituted out of necessity but it’s now likely here to stay and has created for many a new perspective on lawyering, cultivating a desire for greater work/life balance and altering goals.

Landing the job with the highest possible earning potential still remains an important objective for many attorneys, but now more attorneys are telling employers that they have different priorities when choosing whether to join a new law firm. Many firms have accordingly seen an increase in demand for flexible work schedules and remote work options, Green said.

In the spirit of putting clients before themselves, even firms with the most traditional values have kept open minds. Poyner Spruill managing partner Dan Cahill said that his firm still believes in the value of in-person interaction—walking down the hall for a colleague’s advice or mentoring younger attorneys face-to-face—but that new norms have allowed them to think more broadly, particularly in geographic scope.

“If someone is willing to come to one of our offices one or two days a week, we can consider a talented lawyer where we don’t have an office,” Cahill said. “in Asheville, in Greensboro, in Winston-Salem, in Wilmington.”

Some firms have been willing to look even further afield, as another upshot of the rise in remote work is that the market for legal talent is increasing a national one. Recruiters in many parts of the country are seeing unusually tight job markets like what’s being seen in North Carolina.

“In the fall of 2020, we started an amazing uptick in searches, and it’s been increasing every month,” said a recruiter who heads the in-house counsel recruiting division at Major, Lindsey & Africa in Boston. “I know we have never seen it this busy.”

Lawyering from afar may not be ideal from everyone’s perspective, but Canales said that employers should be aware that it is an attractive perk being offered by competitors.

“Currently the work schedule most preferred by professionals is two days in the office and three days remote,” Canales said. “Offering flexibility can potentially attract better talent for open positions and boost retention.”

What works now

Some firms and companies have reported less-than-overwhelming success in hiring ideal candidates, often finding them unavailable or unqualified. But others say that while outstanding talent doesn’t always fall into their laps, they have managed to do quite well recently.

“We attribute it to targeted investment of significant time and intention to diversity and inclusion efforts and expanding where we’re going to meet candidates from our old standard operating procedures, and we’re finding that there are a lot of talented lawyers out there,” said Angela Craddock, a shareholder with Young Moore in Raleigh and chair of the firm’s recruiting and diversity and inclusion committees.

Craddock said that younger lawyers have been a primary target based on the firm’s current needs, and that while the firm has focused its efforts on recent law school graduates and lawyers fresh from clerkships, it has also managed to land some “really talented laterals.”

“I believe we’ve hired attorneys across every single practice area we have,” Craddock said. “The law is busy right now.”

At Poyner Spruill, Cahill said that they look forward to their next perfect hires.

“In a couple of areas, we’ve got so much work that we can’t get it all done,” Cahill said. “We’re sort of doing the rare thing where we are saying, ‘We don’t care if you’re going to bring any work with you, if you’re a good lawyer, we would like to work with you.’”

Sometimes one has to cast a wide net to catch the right fish. Craddock said that hiring success means being open to more ideas and methods, including keeping in contact with law schools, intentionally networking, prominently posting job listings, participating in jobs fairs, and using headhunters or recruiting firms to help for certain hires—the idea is to be as expansive as possible.

Cahill said that his firm leans on an internal employee incentive plan for candidate referrals, and a robust summer associate program that has proven fruitful in terms of building a quality, diverse rank of lawyers who have bought into the firm’s culture, one that requires excellence but offers workability.

In her years of recruiting, Green said that one thing has proven universal for employees of any industry, including the law: They do not enjoy robotic work environments.

“Employees want to feel equal and appreciated,” Green said. “I’ve had candidates that left their roles because they never felt acknowledged despite the years they put into the firms.”

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher

Pat Murphy contributed to this story.