An Update on the California Legal Market

In the midst of the pandemic-fuelled narrative about an exodus from California, a very peculiar occurrence took place within the legal market. BigLaw firms seized the opportunity to enter the Californian market for the first time.

This is something that is baffling to me. California has a state GDP of $3.36 trillion, which, if it was a sovereign country, would make it the fifth largest in the world. Because of this, the current market for Associate and Counsel hires is red hot, with both BigLaw and local firms hunting for lateral talent.

Pandemic-induced reshuffling forced a wave of relocation to markets like Austin and Salt Lake City, which have grown exponentially since the resurgence of the economy off the back of Covid.

A firm offering a very instructive case study on the growth of the California market is Debevoise & Plimpton. In its whole time as a firm, it had previously never held an office on the West Coast, although had spent time serving many Californian clients over the years. Since its recent expansion west, it has gained a lot of attention and set a precedent for firms to follow, resulting in a bolstering of its Northern Californian offices, namely in San Francisco.

Another firm that set up shop over in California was Cleary Gottlieb, opening offices in both San Francisco and Silicon Valley, primarily to target the huge amount of tech clientele currently residing in the latter. As practice areas, technology and IP are two which seem to be here for the long run, with the cyber infrastructure market on a seemingly never-ending road to the top.

It remains to be seen how these new outposts will fare over the longer term. However, one clear advantage of moving into the Bay Area in 2021 was the relatively attractive pricing on commercial real estate, amid uncertainty over the future office space needs of the region’s tech companies. That may give the new entrants some cushion as they continue to build their California client bases.

So, what does all this mean for Associate and Counsel lateral hiring? Overall, the California market remains healthy across the board. Granted, the market has calmed a bit from the unprecedented frenzy of 2021, but there are still numerous opportunities across multiple practice areas.

Geographically, demand is balanced between the Bay Area and Southern California. Specifically, there are currently around 900 associate and counsel openings in each of those regions. (For comparison, there are around 1,100 in New York.)

Demand for Corporate Associates is no longer at the frenzied pace it was last year, but it remains steady. We have seen a steady increase in litigation and real estate openings in recent months. Across all practice areas, the greatest need is for midlevel as well as senior Associates, with the sweet spot in the range of two to five years of experience.

Firms have also this year taken the opportunity to rebuild their summer Associate programmes after two summers of scaled down (and largely remote) programmes. In 2022, many firms are hosting their largest summer classes ever and almost all firms have gone back conducting these in-person.

The return to in-person summer programmes is consistent with a broader move towards imposing some limits on remote work options. By national standards, California firms generally have relatively flexible remote work policies. For example, Cooley recently announced that it would not require attorneys to return to the office even though the firm’s offices have fully reopened as of the beginning of June. However, most firms declined to follow fully remote flexible working. Nonetheless, firms recognize that five days in the office is not a viable demand in the current market.

Nobody can predict the economy’s future direction with certainty, but by historical standards, it’s still an excellent time to pursue a lateral move to California. As the recent entry of many firms illustrates, the growth of other markets has not materially damaged California’s appeal as a place to build a cutting-edge legal practice.


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