Meanwhile, corporate legal departments are expanding to support new business activity and address complex data privacy laws such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act.
Larger offices like Benesch are also hiring or promoting non-lawyer talent at the executive level, aligning with trends percolating within the industry for decades. President and CEO Kevin Fitzpatrick came to Benesch 35 years ago with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, establishing the firm as a go-to construction management consultant for the city of Chicago. Benesch’s Cleveland location installed former manufacturing exec John Banks as chief operating officer, highlighting the expanded business focus evident across the industry.
“Every large firm is doing things the way a business school would teach a business to operate,” Gross said. “In past years, lawyers would run their own practices, but business aspects are now being done by people with those skills.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for legal occupations was $81,820 in May 2019, with associate-level positions, including paralegals and legal assistants, accruing over $51,000 annually. While Cleveland-Marshall College of Law dean Lee Fisher expects firms to remain conservative on hiring until the pandemic recedes, the next wave of non-lawyer jobs won’t necessarily require a juris doctorate to obtain.
“Students could be doing document review as opposed to jobs where a JD is required,” Fisher said. “They don’t need to have a degree, but they do need those organizational, project and technical skills.”
Freelancers are supplementing the existing workforce, allowing workers to operate from home and employers to quickly scale up or down. Benesch contracts out electronic discovery and research on large cases, and hires consultants for other projects.
“There’s no guarantee a project will last for more than a few years,” Fisher said. “Work ebbs and flows, so it makes more sense to hire based upon temporary client needs.”
When hiring resumes in earnest post-COVID, organizations seeking skilled workers will fall back on fit and culture, said Olbinsky of Pivot Growth Partners.
“It’s the notion of being in a crisis and what kind of hard decisions you have to make,” she said. “The coronavirus has highlighted that. ‘These are our values, we have to do this.’ ”