2020 West Coast In-House Legal Market Outlook

Across the country, 2019 was an exceptional year for candidates and a challenging year for organizations in the in-house legal market. Due to the robust economy, the 2019 market was candidate-driven, with top talent often considering multiple offers and opportunities, while organizations looked to expand their legal teams with budget and timing constraints. This year will bring its own challenges, as there is always uncertainty in an election year; however, all indications point to continued growth in-house.

While there are similarities in various regions across the country with regard to hiring trends in the in-house legal market, the West Coast—from the Pacific Northwest to the San Francisco Bay Area and down to Southern California— has its own set of needs and challenges.

Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest, and Seattle in particular, saw continued growth in the tech sector in 2019. There were key moves and placements in 2019, but companies have realized that keeping their best players leads to more successful business outcomes. Increased focus on health tech, SaaS, real estate technology and the emerging cannabis industry have kept Seattle’s legal market very competitive and interesting. Candidates with skills in intellectual property, securities and general commercial remain very much in demand. The year ahead looks to be another growth year as companies continue to progress with measured confidence.

Northern California

The Bay Area legal market stayed robust and was stronger than ever in 2019. Following 2018 trends, biotech/pharma, fintech and SaaS companies were particularly active in seeking legal talent, with product attorneys as well as in-house lawyers with software and SaaS experience being highly sought after. With the rise of privacy laws such as GDPR and CCPA, more legal departments are seeking to hire experienced privacy attorneys but often find themselves competing for the same candidate pool. Additionally, while the market saw numerous IPO fiascos in 2019, corporate and securities attorneys remain in demand.

The Bay Area legal market is off to a bustling start in 2020 and companies are cautiously optimistic about ongoing growth. In 2020, as in 2019, top in-house candidates will likely continue to have leverage when considering a move. More than ever, candidates are seeking opportunities that will allow them professional growth and work/life balance at an organization where the mission resonates with them. In a fierce and highly competitive market for talent, companies will need to take a hard look at the benefits and values that they can bring to the table. 

Southern California

While not as robust as the start-up scene in the Bay Area, in 2019, Los Angeles’ bourgeoning tech industry brought to the market an increase in low to mid-level corporate counsel roles with emerging tech companies. Though Southern California saw a great deal of movement in a variety of industries from manufacturing to hospitality and healthcare to education—with a smattering of tech thrown in for good measure—companies in the region have remained largely focused on best athlete corporate generalist candidates, though data privacy expertise has become a highly sought-after skill that is gaining more traction in the market, and real estate continues to be an area of focus for many companies. In keeping with national trends, the employment market in Southern California remains one in which highly qualified candidates, often satisfied with their current positions and employers, are being courted by a number of companies seeking their experience and expertise. As in Northern California, the onus in 2020 remains on companies to prepare attractive offers to lure candidates away from their current employers.

Final Thoughts

In-house legal departments are starting 2020 strong as they continue to look for ways to make strategic hires and stay closer than ever to the business. The top talent, however, are using a wait-and-see approach to monitor what the market will bear. During a time when organizations are competing for the very best talent, and when the best talent is looking to optimize their options, employers need to be prepared to pull out all the stops to woo and land their top candidates.

 

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