After nearly two years marked by downsizings and hiring freezes at law firms, a few signs have emerged that the sector is slowly rebounding from the economic downturn.
But don't look for a rash of hiring anytime soon, say legal industry experts.
In Pittsburgh, several firms have added lawyers to beef up their Marcellus Shale and energy practices while others are getting a boost from legal work related to the economic fallout such as bankruptcies and family law issues.
"I don't know that we've recovered ... fully, but we've seen pockets and places within the local legal economy that seem to be doing better," said David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County Bar Association.
Nationally, the legal sector added jobs in July, August and September following big losses the previous two months.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 300 new jobs in July, 1,400 in August, and 2,500 in September. Those positions include attorneys and support staff. The sector lost 4,000 jobs in May and June combined, the federal government said.
Chris Cronin, executive director of the Pittsburgh office of Special Counsel, a legal placement and recruiting firm with offices nationwide, said he's seen a spike in demand for attorneys, paralegals and legal support personnel.
"It's a ripple effect from the cutbacks of a couple years ago," he said. "The work still needs to be done and our clients need to get it done."
He declined to provide statistics but said hiring for full-time positions and contract lawyers is up over last year.
Local firms that have added lawyers to focus on work related to the boom in Marcellus Shale drilling in the region include Tucker Arensberg and Buchanan Ingersoll. Tucker added five lawyers and expects more hiring next year; Buchanan recently added three to its oil and gas/Marcellus Shale practice.
Those numbers hardly offset layoffs that hit some local firms in 2008 and 2009, "but some who put hiring on hold are now back hiring," said Lori Carpenter of Carpenter Legal Search.
"I think everyone has seen an uptick in work. In April 2009, law firm hiring just stopped. But from all different size firms recently I've heard they are busier and need to add some specialties."
Besides Marcellus Shale expertise, those specialties include intellectual property and mergers and acquisitions, Ms. Carpenter said.
The increased demand for family law specialists could be a result of "people settled into the fact that the economy is not going to get better real soon," Mr. Blaner said. "So there are custody, separation and divorce issues that people were going to hold off on pursuing but now are dealing with."
With only scattered hiring activity, the outlook for law school graduates is still not as bright as it was pre-recession. The market peaked in 2007 when 92 percent of that year's law school classes secured jobs, according to the National Association for Law Placement in Washington, D.C.
The employment rate among 2009 graduates fell to 88 percent, NALP reported in July. Entering the market in the midst of economic turmoil hit that class hard, with 3,200 to 3,700 landing jobs at law firms but having their start dates deferred to late 2009 or early 2010, NALP said. Also, many of those graduates reported finding jobs that were temporary rather than permanent.
In 2010, about 17 percent of law firms surveyed scrapped their summer associate programs altogether, NALP said. Another bit of dire news for those seeking jobs: a NALP survey of recruiting and professional development departments at law firms found 51 percent of them had shed staff between 2008 and 2010 and 53 percent said their budgets had been cut by more than 10 percent.
"Upcoming graduates and the most current graduates are having a harder time because a lot of summer associate positions have been eliminated," Mr. Blaner said.
Summer associates in a good economy are frequently offered full-time jobs when they graduate.
The economy is making recent law school graduates "work a little harder for positions," Mr. Blaner said. "They have to look at alternatives to traditional practice until things get back to a normal routine in the economy."
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.