Sidley Austin's Chicago office managing partner Teresa Harmon tells us why the city's tech market has grown in recent years and explains why lawyers across the transactional-litigation-regulatory spectrum will be catered for.
Chambers Associate: What are the current key industry sectors for lawyers in Chicago?
Teresa Harmon: Chicago is one of the world’s largest and most diversified economies, with no single industry representing more than 12% of its economy. As a result, the Chicago legal market offers opportunities for lawyers across a broad range of industries. Examples of key industry sectors include complex finance and derivatives, corporate/M&A and private equity, manufacturing, health care, education and professional services. Trade, transportation, utilities and insurance are also historically strong sectors, while technology and life sciences businesses have grown rapidly in recent years. Each of these industries leads to significant opportunities for lawyers focused on litigation, transactions, counseling and regulatory work.
CA:Which practice areas are currently thriving in the Chicago legal market?
TH: Chicago supports a broad range of large firm legal practice areas. Traditional areas like litigation, finance, real estate, restructuring and corporate/M&A are strong, while newer sectors such as private equity, health care, technology, privacy and intellectual property are growing fast. Recent developments in Chicago’s tech market offer particularly strong opportunities for lawyers and have attracted many young entrepreneurs and startups to Chicago, including in the life sciences industry. In fact, Chicago’s high share of college-educated, STEM workers drives innovation and the startup ecosystem, while statewide R&D has grown, particularly in pharma, machinery and university settings. Chicago is also the home to several large corporate headquarters, including some which have moved to Chicago in the past few years. These Chicago companies offer significant opportunities for Chicago lawyers and suggest that long-term business growth is ahead.
"Each of these industries leads to significant opportunities for lawyers focused on litigation, transactions, counseling and regulatory work."
CA: How has the Chicago legal market evolved over the past five years?
TH: Chicago’s legal market has developed and changed along with Chicago’s business community, including strong opportunities for lawyers in growing industry sectors. Chicago’s historically strong, large law firms continue to lead the market, while its two largest law offices continue to dominate in size and breadth of practice. Firms that have historically not had a Chicago practice have opened smaller satellite offices in Chicago and the lateral market has expanded due to the plethora of opportunities.
CA: How would you describe the competition between firms in the Chicago legal market?
TH: Chicago’s legal community is collegial and close-knit reflecting the values of the city. Chicago lawyers regularly work together across the profession to promote pro bono work, philanthropy and civic institutions. Competition for new business and lateral talent is moderately strong, and that means lawyers have opportunities for practice and personal growth during their careers. Chicago lawyers have frequent opportunities to pitch new business and develop innovative practices to clients located in Chicago and across the globe. Indeed, Chicago lawyers at firms like Sidley regularly work on national and international matters that could be staffed by lawyers in any large legal market, but clients choose Chicago lawyers for their strength and central location.
"Chicago lawyers have frequent opportunities to pitch new business and develop innovative practices to clients located in Chicago and across the globe."
CA: What do you think the Chicago legal market will look like in five years’ time?
TH: Current trends suggest a continued consolidation of top talent and top practice opportunities at Chicago’s largest and most elite firms. These firms offer the professional training, development and opportunities demanded by the best lawyers, and offer the depth and strength of practice demanded by the best clients.
CA: What effects do you think COVID-19 will have on the Chicago legal marketplace in both the short and long term?
TH: Chicago’s top firms, like Sidley, were already committed to lawyer well-being, technological innovation such as remote work, and community service. COVID-19 and the related economic distress underscores the importance of each of these areas and will drive law firm management in the years ahead. In particular, the fight against COVID-19 will lead to new opportunities to serve clients in the areas of health care, life sciences and technology/privacy. And as economic distress and the eventual economic recovery take hold lawyers will see new work in sectors ranging from bankruptcy, reorganization and litigation to finance, private equity investments and strategic transactions.
"Chicago’s high share of college-educated, STEM workers drives innovation and the startup ecosystem, while statewide R&D has grown, particularly in pharma, machinery and university settings."
CA: What distinguishes the Chicago market in comparison to other US legal markets?
TH: Chicago offers the best legal work imaginable in a thriving, livable city. The city’s lawyers have their pick of strong international practices and serve clients in all global markets. Chicago offers a broad range of affordable living options, including a vibrant urban community, young talent powering its tech sector and beautiful suburbs with easy commutes to the office. Chicago’s lakefront, endless bike and running trails, and expansive cultural and artistic offerings set the city apart from other markets.
"Chicago’s diversity of legal practices and the strength of its community, along with its livability, are the main pull factors."
CA: What do you think are the main pull factors to the Chicago market for law students and lateral talent?
TH: Chicago’s diversity of legal practices and the strength of its community, along with its livability, are the main pull factors. Lawyers not just from the Midwest, but also from across the country and globe continue to recognize the opportunities Chicago offers.