Atlanta is often touted as the premier legal market in the Southeast. It is also considered one of the Top 10 legal markets nationally, largely due to the number of Fortune 500 companies that call Atlanta home and the law firms that exist here to service these clients. The city is a haven for young professionals and offers world class entertainment and dining, myriad outdoor activities, affordable cost of living, an expanding job market, exceptional institutions of higher learning, and warm weather. As a result, Atlanta’s law firms draw attorneys from top tier law schools and law firms, and from all parts of the country.
Associate compensation has increased slightly since the downturn and is competitive with other major markets (when cost of housing and general cost of living is factored in, Atlanta is among the top paying markets in the country). The average starting salary for a first year associate at a major firm is hovering around $135K. A few IP boutiques and larger firms that pay on an elevated national pay scale pay at or around $160K. Bonuses are also back — although they can vary greatly and are generally based on a variety of both subjective and objective factors.
As for the practice areas in hot demand: Presently, lateral associates with transactional experience are highly sought after, particularly those with M&A/Securities, commercial real estate and/or finance experience. Because of the scarcity of these candidates (due to layoffs and/or practice transitions during the Great Recession), big firms have become increasingly open to considering candidates who may have taken a less traditional path. For example, we have had success placing transactional associates who worked in other areas since 2008. Big firms have also been increasingly amenable to attorneys with more years of practice experience on paper (in relation to graduation year) than the job description warrants. Owing to decreased deal flow, these candidates actually fit in nicely to more junior positions.
Intellectual property associates with either transactional or litigation backgrounds are also in high demand, particularly those with patent experience. Several IP boutiques have splintered from larger firms here in Atlanta and we are seeing hiring take place in firms of all sizes. Attorneys who have degrees in electrical engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering have a multitude of opportunities from which to choose. These positions tend to pay above market because of the specialized scientific/technical background requirements.
Unfortunately, not all news is positive as the hiring for litigation associates slowed down tremendously in the second half of 2013, especially for general commercial litigators. We did experience success placing associates with a specialized litigation skill set, such as products liability, labor & employment, and tax controversy work (along with IP and patent litigators). Regrettably there remains a much larger supply of litigators looking to make a transition than there is demand for these associates. The flow of litigation tends to cycle and we expect a pick up at some point in 2014.
We have also witnessed an upward trend in hiring at smaller boutiques and mid-sized firms in the city. In the new economic paradigm and as companies endeavor to reduce legal spend, many of these smaller firms are garnering clients and work that used to be the sole domain of BIGLAW. As their business has grown, so has their demand for lateral associates. Associates at all levels are often attracted to such a platform as many of these firms offer a more manageable work/life balance, along with increased client contact and enhanced involvement on matters for their non-partner level attorneys.
Based on data from other markets The Partners Group services, many of the trends in hiring that we are experiencing in Atlanta are also mirrored in larger markets throughout the country.
Overall, Atlanta is experiencing healthy hiring in the legal sector. I would not characterize it as booming, but it is definitely steady and is very much on par with other markets here in the Southeast. The growth is not occurring at the same pace it had been pre-2008, but as a whole the market seems active and alive which is a dramatic shift from 5 years ago.