Guide predicts steady improvement in Canada’s legal job market

The newest cohort of legal professionals in Canada can look forward to a more than three per cent overall hike in starting salaries, according to a projected figure in a recent report.

“Law firms in many markets are expanding their first-year and summer associate programs,” says Sara Lutecki, division director, Robert Half Legal. “We’re also seeing large firms starting to boost starting salaries for new associates and tenured attorneys.”

Robert Half Legal’s Annual Salary Guide for 2017, which was released Oct. 6, forecasts steady improvement in the legal job market in Canada over the year ahead. The guide points to the residential and commercial real estate sector as a driving force behind an uptick in employment across the country. Boutique law firms, mid-size firms and companies are doing the bulk of the hiring, says the guide.

Lutecki says employers are placing a premium on interpersonal skills and technological proficiency when evaluating candidates.

“This may play a part in the decision to take on newer graduates, both lawyers and legal support professionals, who may have more experience with tech-tools or be more flexible in adopting new technology,” she says.

The guide predicts first-year associates at small law firms and lawyers with one to three years of professional experience at small-to-midsize law firms should see greater-than-average salary gains.

According to the survey — which set aside compensation or bonuses -- top considerations for legal professionals were challenging work or variety of assignments, flexible work arrangements, professional development opportunities and vacation or time-off policy.

“Getting creative with benefits packages, flexible work arrangements and better balance overall has become an essential strategy for legal firms and companies to retain valuable legal staff,” Lutecki says.

Additional time off, extended family leave and subsidized meal plans were listed as perks to improve work-life balance.

Lutecki says law firms are hiring to expand lucrative practice groups or establish new services while legal departments are recruiting professionals to support an increase in case work related to commercial litigation and transactions.

“In the corporate world, renewed business activity and ongoing regulatory requirements are creating demand for specialized in-house counsel,” Lutecki says. “Corporate legal departments are seeking associates not only to handle legal and regulatory matters but also to support the organization’s business objectives by identifying new opportunities that don’t pose significant risks.”

Legal professionals with experience in high-demand areas such as real estate, intellectual property and corporate transactional law have multiple opportunities open to them and multifaceted job candidates with skills in other disciplines — such as finance, business or technology — and those who also have non-law degrees in applied sciences or professional designations are also in demand.

According to the guide, seven out of 10 lawyers said it’s “somewhat or very challenging to find skilled legal professionals.”

By a wide margin, the top two practice areas reported in the survey as offering the greatest number of job opportunities were general business/corporate law, 36 per cent, followed by litigation at 31 per cent. The next practice area was intellectual property at 7 per cent.

The annual salary guide is based on research and local and national employment data gathered from Robert Half Legal offices throughout North America.

By the numbers:

• Average starting salaries for lawyers at law firms are expected to increase 3.4 per cent in 2017.

• Starting salaries for lawyers with one to three years' experience at a small-to-midsize law firm (10 to 35 lawyers) are expected to increase 4.5 per cent from 2016, to the average range of $77,250 to $115,250 annually.

• First-year associates at small law firms (up to 10 lawyers) are expected to earn between $55,000 and $72,500, a 5.2 per cent increase over 2016 projections.

• Corporate lawyers are expected to see average compensation gains of 3.3 per cent over 2016 levels.

• Starting salaries for in-house counsel with four to nine years' experience at large companies ($250 million or more in revenue) are projected to rise 3.9 per cent, to the range of $151,000 to $260,000 annually.

• On average, starting salaries for legal specialists are predicted to rise 4.1 per cent.

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