Employment Watch: How COVID-19 is Impacting Washington’s Legal Job Market

Female lawyer in a mask

For legal professionals, the economic impacts of COVID-19 may have been behind national trends, but in the weeks following the unprecedented nationwide shutdown, unemployment in the legal field too began its uptick.

Given recent news that 105 million fraudulent unemployment claims were filed in Washington state, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how many legal professionals legitimately filed for benefits (unemployment claims in the profession peaked in the same week state officials attributed to record fraud). In total, as many as 1,927 initial claims have been filed on behalf of lawyers, judges, and related workers over the past three months, as well as 2,546 initial claims for legal support workers, according to the Washington Employment Security Department.

In response to the escalating economic impacts and other COVID-19-related hurdles, the WSBA is offering a special discounted rate for nonprofits and small-firm employers to post opportunities on the WSBA Career Center through July 31. Beginning July 23, the WSBA will also begin hosting a six-week free virtual job seekers group.

For legal professionals now looking for work in uncertain times, WSBA Member Wellness Program Manager Dan Crystal said, “Waiting for the right time to begin your job search may involve too much waiting.”

Crystal recommends applying for at least two jobs a week, creating a routine that will help refine the best jobs to apply for and allow you to get application materials together quickly.

“Networking is still possible while sheltering in place,” Crystal said. “Arranging a Zoom chat or phone call, even with a relative stranger, can still occur with most people still at home. This is how most lawyers find jobs.”

WSBA members can also access free resources through the Member Wellness Program such as consultations and counseling, Peer Advising, and support for self-care and addiction.

“We can realistically predict a contraction in the legal job market,” Crystal added. “So, keep looking, but don’t wear yourself out. Keeping a positive outlook requires plenty of self-care and sometimes a Plan B.”

More than 50 large law firms have either furloughed employees, cut pay, cut staff, adjusted summer associate programs, or some combination of the four, according to Law360. Cuts from the top of national firms have also trickled down a handful of Washington locations, the Seattle Times reported last month.

“I think one of the key strategies for firms that get through this is to showcase empathy and flexibility for the people that they work with; that they care about them and that their employees understand the business model,” said Daniel J. DiResta, chief operating officer of Williams Kastner, which employs about 70 lawyers across its Washington and Oregon offices. “People are not going to work hard in situations where there are many unknowns about the future unless they are supported and receive consistent information from their company’s leadership.”

While Williams Kastner has had to make significant changes to its budget, DiResta credited the firm’s sustainability in these times to its diversification of clients, a metric-based approach to its business model, frequent client outreach and information sessions, and pre-COVID-19 investment in new technology—which proved to be invaluable when the office had to shift to entirely remote operations.

The firm is carefully analyzing where its revenue is coming from and how that’s changing in order to make reliable forecasts even amid the many unknowns that continue percolating throughout the ongoing health crisis. Really, DiResta said, successful law firms are and will be those that adopt the best practices of non-legal, innovative businesses.

“The best advice that I can give law firms right now is go slow on your return to the office, be flexible, and have empathy for everyone on your team—everyone you work with,” DiResta said. “This has been traumatic for many of us on a number of different levels.”

Kibby Aslakson, a partner with the legal staffing group Emerald Search Partners (ESP), said the organization hasn’t noticed a substantial change in the number of legal professionals seeking jobs nor numbers of new job postings. In fact, many of the attorneys submitting applications through ESP are from out of state. However, Aslakson said there have been bumps in new jobs for immigration, real estate, and personal injury law.

“It’s a strong market; it was a strong market ahead of this and it’s still there,” Aslakson said.

In the private world, the full effects of COVID-19 might start to take shape in the third fiscal quarter when firms set budgets for the coming year. And in the public sector, anticipated hits to state and federal budgets point toward likely staff cuts.

Russell Brown, executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said most counties in Washington are forecast to shrink general funds by about 10 percent. Brown said prosecutors are also bracing for expected cuts to state grants and projects that pay for staff, for example, through the Department of Child Support, which itself is preparing to cut its budget by 15 percent, Brown said.

“In most offices that would mean losing staff and or attorneys, and in some counties it means both. … So collectively it is not a pretty picture. Most offices are certainly in a position where they cannot fill open positions, and many more are looking at how to cut without losing too many employees.”