COVID-19: Legal Market Update in the Windy City

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The country’s third-largest legal economy is no exception to implications from the COVID-19 pandemic with law firms adapting their hiring strategies to evolving business trends and client needs.  Through March, Chicago law firms were on pace for another outstanding fiscal year.  In 2019, Chicago and Midwest firms matched or exceeded national legal sector revenue growth with steadily increasing billable rates and headcounts.  In recent years, many Am Law 100 firms have also opened new offices in Chicago.  Now a month-in from firms shifting completely to remote working operations, certain practice areas have slowed, while others have sustained or increased demand.  On the hiring front, while some firms are pausing interviews, many are actively continuing with Zoom interviewing and remote onboarding and integration.

With Chicago being uniquely home to some of the world’s leading restructuring practice groups, some firms are well-positioned to thrive during a recession.  Consistent with national trends, collapsing corporate revenues have accelerated the need for advice to debtors on liability management, recapitalizations, and out-of-court restructurings as well as assisting creditors with negotiating and documenting workout agreements.  Chicago’s go-to restructuring and bankruptcy practice groups have predictably become increasingly busy and we are working on both associate and partner level needs with top large and midsize Chicago firms.

We have also seen other practice areas with continued or increased demand.  Activity has grown in employee benefits and executive compensation groups as employers assess how to handle immediate employee needs related to sick leave, family leave, and benefits claims and the impact that changes in their workforce or economic conditions will have on their compensation plans and programs.  Chicago is also home to some of the best healthcare practices, where we have seen an uptick in hiring as firms advise clients on emerging regulatory developments and guidance through FDA approvals.  Also, firms are continuing to interview for technology transactions, data privacy, and IP litigation and prosecution positions seeking both biochemical and hard science backgrounds.

As a major financial hub, Chicago firms’ transactional practices center on M&A, private equity, finance, and real estate.  While deal-activity has slowed during social distancing measures, we are optimistic that this is just a pause and not a full-stop and transactions will resume as the pandemic subsides.  Private equity firms, holding record-levels of dry powder or cash to invest, are still actively seeking deals and investments, particularly in distressed asset industries, such as retail, travel, and energy.  Acquisitions within healthcare services and IT should continue as well.  As investment and merger activity revives, so should demand for mid-level associates with primary document negotiation and drafting experience.  Currently, attorneys are still interviewing for PE M&A, finance, and investment funds positions.

The pandemic’s full impact on Chicago’s real estate practice groups is somewhat more uncertain.  We have seen certain patterns emerge since the outbreak.  Some law firms are representing Chicago real estate PE firms on purchasing properties from companies and leasing them back as many businesses look for liquidity to weather the coronavirus crisis.  Additionally, firms with real estate leasing practices are advising commercial tenants and landlords on lease obligations in light of government ordered business closures and helping to address leasing defaults and negotiate short-term lease workouts.

We are presently working on positions with Chicago law firms (who are proceeding with Zoom interviews) in these practice areas:  

  • Debt-finance (lender and borrower-side) – mid-level
  • PE M&A – mid-level and partner-level
  • Restructuring – junior, mid-level, and partner-level
  • Corporate fund formation – junior and mid-level
  • Healthcare law (transactional and regulatory) – mid-level
  • IP litigation with electrical engineering and computer science backgrounds – mid-level
  • IP litigation with life science backgrounds – mid-level
  • Employee benefits and executive compensation – mid-level
  • Labor & Employment – mid-level and partner-level
  • Patent prosecution – junior and mid-level
  • Real estate – junior, mid-level, and partner-level
  • Tech transactions – mid-level

Candidates must have top credentials and Biglaw experience.  Partners should have portable business.  Chicago firms are generally very open to relocating associates from other major markets.  Please reach out to one of us or to discuss any of the positions above.

What to do if none of these openings are in your practice area?  Do everything you can to try to keep your job. 

  • Do your work. If you get a project, do it.  If you can’t, speak up!  If you cannot complete an assignment, tell someone.  Do not wait until the deadline to say that you didn’t have time and couldn’t complete the project.
  • Take ownership of an assignment. When asked to do something, don’t just do it.  Motivate yourself to do better.  And, if there is an opportunity for a follow-up project, offer to do that before asked.  Even if you get a “no”, this shows initiative and that you have taken ownership of the entire project.
  • Pay attention to details. If there ever was a time to impress people, it is now.  There is no such thing as a “draft,” even if you know the partner can’t help themselves and will edit the document.  Partners don’t really want to edit a document, but the work has to be perfect.
  • Do your best to be visible and show commitment. In this environment, try not to be “out of sight out of mind.”  Try to respond to emails promptly.  Reach out with questions.  Volunteer for projects.  Stay engaged.
  • Look for work—pivot, if necessary. This is a time when some practice areas or groups will not be super busy.  Billable hours count.  Ask for work and work for everyone.  Working for many people and in different groups will give you valuable experience and make you more marketable.

Jesse Hyde is a Director based in Chicago where he oversees attorney placements and client services in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. He specializes in placing associates, partners, and in-house counsel with leading Am Law 100 and 200 law firms and premier corporations. 

Colleen Romero is a Director based in Chicago where she focuses on matching associates, partners, and in-house attorneys with elite firms and companies throughout the United States. Prior to recruiting, she was a partner in the tax group of Baker & McKenzie and was also an associate with Schiff Hardin.