Legal hiring is bright spot in latest U.S. jobs report

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REUTERS/Toby Melville

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  • The legal sector added 4,300 jobs in September
  • Legal industry growth outpaced overall U.S. job gains

(Reuters) - (CORRECTION: An version of this story published October 2021 reported incorrectly that legal sector jobs peaked in February 2020. It has been corrected based on U.S. Labor Department data showing an historical peak of about 1.18 million jobs in May 2007.)

Employment in the legal industry continued to climb in September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday, moving closer to pre-pandemic levels even as the country's overall job growth fell significantly.

The legal sector added 4,300 jobs last month, raising the preliminary, seasonally adjusted total to 1,145,600 law-related positions, the BLS figures show.

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After hitting an historical peak of 1,165,300 jobs in February 2020, U.S. legal services employment dropped to a nearly 20-year low of 1,092,100 in April 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic hammered the economy and sparked layoffs at law firms and other legal employers. Since then, other than slight dips in December 2020 and in March, the numbers have climbed.

Legal industry growth outpaced overall job growth for the month in the U.S., with nonfarm payrolls increasing by 194,000 jobs, the smallest gain since December 2020 and down from 366,000 jobs added in August. The Labor Department's closely watched employment report also showed that the unemployment rate dropped to an 18-month low of 4.8% as many workers exited the labor force.

Last month, the legal sector saw total jobs increase by 0.38%, while non-farm jobs stayed flat with a growth rate of 0.13%, reaching 147,553,000. The picture changes looking at year-to-date growth, however: Since January, legal jobs have increased by 2%, compared to a 3.37% increase for total non-farm employment, BLS data shows.

According to Phil Flora, vice president of sales and marketing at legal intelligence firm Leopard Solutions, law firms are staffing up both because of layoffs they made in the pandemic and because of poaching by other firms.

"Firms that we haven't seen traditionally, ever really, do lateral hiring have been posting jobs and looking for growth opportunities via laterals and mergers and everything else," he said.

In late July, Leopard Solutions, which tracks hiring at more than 1,000 global law firms and nearly two dozen Fortune 500 companies, reported a record of more than 10,000 job openings for legal professionals. According to Flora, net job openings have increased by another 1,000 in the past three months, with consistent growth each month.

"I would not be surprised if our number increases by another 1,000 by the end of the year," he said.

Read more:

Fewer school jobs, worker shortages restrain U.S. employment in September

Legal sector headcount dropped 5.5% in April to nearly 20 year low

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Xiumei Dong covers legal industry news, with a focus on law firm strategy and growth, in-house counsel and the Washington, D.C., legal market. Reach her at