Most Lucrative: Complex Litigation

Topping the PayScale chart for highest compensation was complex litigation, with its typical pay being 18 percent above the median attorney salary. Complex cases go on and on, and they “cling to the docket like burrs on a pant leg,” as one article in the ABA Journal put it.

“You certainly see top litigation lawyers being able to command top compensation,” said Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal.

Growth in this specialty is partly because of the rise in e-discovery during the past decade. In 2006, emails and instant messages were specifically identified as electronic records that needed to be archived and produced. Attorneys now have to produce everything that has been stored electronically, and that can require cooperation with IT departments. (Heads up: That means there are also lots of jobs specifically in e-discovery.)

One recent client of Robert Half’s had a 50-terabyte data set — with 8 million emails. With an ongoing federal focus around electronic discovery, Volkert is optimistic that the area will continue to grow.

“We have continued to see the boom and the growth in litigation that began even before the downturn, and I think it accelerated in the downturn,” Volkert said.

Complex litigation pay also depends on whether the work is hourly or on contingency, Fontaine said.

She cited the historic Robins Kaplan settlement with Big Tobacco in 1998 on behalf of the State of Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota for a combined total of $6.6 billion. In that case, 33 million documents were reviewed (and this was before e-discovery), 200 motions were filed, and attorneys filed nine appeals to the state and U.S. Supreme Courts. Under the original terms, the state owed the law firm $1.5 billion, but the attorneys’ work would have cost only $30 million to $40 million if it had been billed hourly. The firm ultimately received a reported $440 million.

“It’s like rolling the dice, and you have to be very careful what you take,” Fontaine said.  

While complex litigation pays more, hourly rates aren’t as high in general litigation as they are in other practice areas, according to the 2015 year-end Enterprise Legal Management Trends Report by LexisNexis CounselLink based on legal invoices. The average hourly rate for a partner last year was $350.

Robert Half Legal’s report pointed to a few areas in litigation with increased opportunities for lawyers and paralegals: insurance defense, personal injury, medical malpractice, employment law and commercial litigation. The report said litigation expertise is always in demand, though the need can fluctuate with the economic environment.

Based on feedback from Robert Half’s 350 recruiters, lawyers with four to seven years of experience are in high demand. Those are lawyers who can work on a case from start to finish without hand-holding, Volkert said.