DC Law Firms in the Time of Coronavirus: The State of the Legal Market in the Nation’s Capital

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Exactly one month ago, Elizabeth Warren ended her presidential campaign, the number of Coronavirus cases worldwide climbed toward 100,000, and economists expected the U.S. jobs report to show another month of strong hiring.

How quickly things change.

Although the legal industry showed only moderate losses compared to the general employment market in the March jobs report, the picture will be bleaker when the last two weeks of March are taken into consideration. Law firm job losses will be unavoidable, as the industry absorbs the impact of the larger economic shutdown.

The next few months will not be business as usual for the country’s law firms.

Except, perhaps, for the law firms in the nation’s capital, which may well turn out to be the least affected. Although the country’s second-largest legal market is not recession-proof, DC does tend to weather economic downturns better than others. Several factors distinguish its legal market:

  • Washington is home to the federal government. It’s also home to many of the courts, administrative agencies, government contractors, and lobbyists that carry on its business. There is a lot of government (and lobbying) money in DC. (And government employees enjoy considerably more security than private-sector employees. The federal headcount proved largely recession-proof during the last downturn.)
  • Washington has nine times as many lawyers per capita than New York City – roughly 80,000 in the DC region.

Legal practice in the region is defined by its relationship to government work: DC litigation often has a government-facing component to it; regulatory practices draw attorneys interested in the administrative and policy aspects of particular fields, and even corporate work may have a regulatory element when practiced in DC. As “Chambers Associate” noted, the DC economy didn’t suffer as much as other regions during the last recession, “largely because of the steady flow of government-related work that needs to be done, recession or no recession.” While there will be a slowdown in corporate-related work and junior attorneys who have not yet established a specialization may find themselves let go, the region’s focus on practice areas that are not deal intensive should help insulate it from the effects of COVID-19.

Not surprisingly, law firms in DC (like those across the nation) are already seeing a surge in demand as clients reach out to employment, cybersecurity, and healthcare attorneys for help with COVID-related issues. Employment attorneys are in demand because companies are trying to understand their rights and obligations to their employees; they need advice on how to deal with layoffs and other cost-saving measures. Healthcare practices are busy as some companies seek to improve their preparedness in the face of this major public health challenge. Other companies want to make sense of what they can and cannot do now that many of the laws and regulations governing the healthcare industry are being waived. And with their employees now working from home, many companies are also seeking guidance regarding novel cyber threats that imperil online security. (Hello, Zoom?)

Private equity, bankruptcy/restructuring, and tax lawyers can expect their phones to start ringing  (if they haven’t already). Although many bankruptcy lawyers found themselves underutilized during the last recession, COVID is affecting businesses differently. And private equity firms flush with cash may take advantage of opportunistic buyouts of cash-strapped businesses or provide a financial lifeline to unsponsored companies that may otherwise go under.

DC firms have these specific openings in the hottest practice areas:

  • Bankruptcy litigation – 3 openings, all levels
  • Cybersecurity – 7 openings, requiring at least two years’ experience
  • Environmental law – 5 openings for mid-level associates (2015-17)
  • Government Contracts – 5 openings, requiring at least one and not more than seven years’ experience
  • Healthcare law – 12 openings, requiring at least one and not more than eight years’ experience
  • Insurance law – 1 opening, classes 2013-15
  • Labor and Employment or Executive Comp and Benefits – multiple openings, particularly for mid-level and senior associates
  • Private Equity – 5 openings, requiring at least three years’ experience
  • Tech Trans – 3 openings, requiring at least three years’ experience

As always, partners with portable business will remain in demand as firms depend on their revenues to carry others during downturns.

Generally, candidates should have U.S. JDs, top credentials, and BigLaw experience. DC firms are generally open to relocators from other major markets – particularly from New York. Please reach out to me at  to discuss any of the opportunities above.

And, if you’re not looking to make a move yet, follow me on LinkedIn where I share the latest on issues affecting lawyers and the legal market. Because (with apologies to Ferris Bueller), “The legal market moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Kristina Marlow has worked in DC’s legal market in various capacities for more than two decades, having gone to law school at Georgetown, then practiced in-house and at Gibson Dunn, where she later became the recruiting manager. For the past eight years, she worked as a senior legal recruiter with Lateral Link, focusing on associate placements in both DC and Detroit.