Spotlight on Raleigh, NC

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With a strong startup scene, our interviewees tell us how Raleigh presents opportunities to "make a name for yourself."

Chelsey Stanborough, October 2023

North Carolina has topped the charts as CNBC's Top State for Business for the second year in a row.  Law firms, companies, and talent are invariably drawn to the promise of economic and business growth in the Old North State.

As it stands, North Carolina has two major legal hubs: Charlotte and Raleigh. While Charlotte historically has garnered more attention from national law firms, it would be remiss to overlook Raleigh’s innovative prowess. In this article, we focus the spotlight on NC’s capital, Raleigh, and what the city’s legal landscape has in store for attorneys (read about NC’s other legal hub, Charlotte, here). We spoke to Jordan Abshire of Abshire Legal Search, and dug deep into the market with Stephen Feldman of Robinson Bradshaw, Don Reynolds of Wyrick Robbins, Gerald Roach of Smith Anderson, and Ford Robertson of Kilpatrick Townsend.

Rising Raleigh

Why Raleigh? Well, according to Feldman, “It’s an area teeming with smart, creative, forward-thinking people.” Talent is attracted to the highly diverse economy in the city; while Charlotte is home to a number of Fortune 500 companies, the Raleigh area hosts a significant number of startups and emerging growth companies which offer the potential of new client relationships to attorneys in the region. In fact, the city’s been earmarked as a rising entrepreneurial hub thanks to its proximity to NC’s Research Triangle Park (RTP). Tech’s not new here; Raleigh/RTP is home to Cisco’s second largest base, while IBM’s had a presence in the area since the 1960s. Today, it’s estimated that Raleigh/RTP houses over 500 startups across a number of sectors, including life sciences and consumer products, making it an area ripe for venture capital and private equity deals. According to Reynolds, the “startup scene affords attorneys the opportunity to work with really talented people and help them with their legal issues, which are often a distraction for them, keeping them from the creative work that they do best.”


"Associates need to start thinking like a future owner of the business from the beginning."


Working alongside startups also offers associates the opportunity to grow with their clients; “It’s exciting for attorneys to watch companies grow from startup to public company, and to assist the whole way,” Abshire tells us. And according to Reynolds, this arena of work means “there’s room to succeed and make a name for yourself in Raleigh, whether that is carving out space in an existing practise area or importing skills that may not exist yet.” The city’s legal market is largely run by local firms; AmLaw’s yet to establish a dominant presence in Raleigh to the same extent it has in Charlotte. As such, local firms are eager to hire entry-level associates and laterals with partnership in mind. “Raleigh is not a place to practise anonymously as one of 40 mid-level associates in your office. There is an expectation that associates need to start thinking like a future owner of the business from the beginning,” Roach and Feldman highlight. As such, Robertson makes clear, “Associates have earlier opportunities to take on a more significant role.”

Variety is the spice of life

Raleigh’s home to a corner of the famous Triangle (no, we’re not talking about Doritos). The Research Triangle Park (RTP) is a (surprise, surprise) triangular area between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, and their respective universities (Duke University, North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). The research park is home to over 300 companies. In fact, it’s the largest research park in the US, and puts Raleigh on the map as a hub of innovation and development. 

Thanks to the RTP, there are a number of industries generating a buzz in the city. Raleigh’s got players across tech, life sciences, healthcare, higher education, and agriculture – to name just a few. It’s this diverse market which has kept the city’s economy buoyant during economic downturns, and in turn, local law firms face fewer financial headwinds. Abshire notes, Many local firms were able to avoid layoffs during the crisis and Great Recession.” In fact, according to NALP’s hiring statistics, while associate lateral hiring was down 19.6% from 2021 to 2022 nationally, the figures reported for the Raleigh-Durham area showed a 15.4% increase.

In line with the city’s knack for innovation, Robertson advises attorneys looking to make the move to “find an established firm and show them how you can bring something new.” Ultimately, “Legal job seekers who can match up their background/practice/expertise in these areas or any other economic drivers will be attractive hires,” he emphasizes. 

Run this town

As mentioned earlier, Raleigh’s got a smaller AmLaw population than Charlotte; local firms get a sizeable share of top legal work. Abshire suggests one reason for this is that “the presence of startups and emerging companies necessitates rate flexibility that AmLaw firms often don’t have.” For this very reason, M&A practices at local firms tend to lead the rankings. Local corporate legal departments often seek out legal counsel from local firms that can offer advice and representation and better rates. Roach tells us, Local firms are not highly leveraged; experienced partners work on deals, with the assistance of qualified associates who often have started their careers in New York City.” As such, Abshire advises associates looking to enter the Raleigh market should “certainly consider a firm’s rate structure, which may impact their ability to develop business.”


“ may be the clients first interaction with lawyers.”


So, who’s set up to thrive in Raleigh? According to Abshire, it’s “someone who’s willing to invest time and billable hours at a reduced rate, especially through a company’s startup stages.” And it’s expected that earlier stage clients are going to need some more TLC than public companies perhaps would as “it may be the clients first interaction with lawyers,” Abshire explains.

Setting the Bar high

Raleigh offers all the benefits of a local community. According to Feldman, the typically smaller Bar association is “tight knit and collegial,” sitting at around 27,000 licensed lawyers. The cozier group is “small enough to offer a level of accountability,” that larger ones may not afford. Feldman explains, “An attorney is likely to run into other lawyers outside work, so it creates a certain level of civility and professional courtesy, even in contentious matters!” Abshire confirms, “You might find yourself coaching your child’s baseball team opposite a client or a partner from another firm.” So, make sure you play nice on the diamond.

Top tips!

Now for some top tips from our contributors. Abshire advises students to summer or intern at local law firms, if they plan to move back after starting their careers in New York or DC. Roach notes, “Networking is necessary from the beginning, both to develop client contacts with whom you will come up through the ranks, but also to develop a peer group in your practice area with associates from other firms.”


“Because the Raleigh market is very connected, it becomes all the more important to bring your best in all interactions.”


And it’s not just peer relationships that’ll serve you in the long run; according to Reynolds, “It is almost certain that senior folks in the market will take time to chat with you about your career path and get referrals to other senior attorneys whose practices are relevant to you.” He adds, “Because the Raleigh market is very connected, it becomes all the more important to bring your best in all interactions.” With this in mind, the general advice was for juniors to do their due diligence on LinkedIn ahead of conversations. It’s important to know who you’re speaking to, what their role is at the firm, and how they might be connected in the greater Raleigh market. And don’t underestimate the power of a ‘thank you’; “it goes a long way in this world!” quips Reynolds. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for further introductions. “The worst thing that can happen is someone says they don’t have any opportunities that fit your needs, in which case you are in the same spot you were before you asked!” As George Bernard Shaw states: “Don't wait for the right opportunity: create it!”