Chicago & the Midwest

Chicago 2

The Midwest has a knack for birthing top law firms: five of AmLaw's top ten are locals (DLA Piper, Baker & McKenzie, Jones Day, Sidley Austin, and Kirkland & Ellis), and the region is also the base for other serious national and international players.

MOST of these firms have sprung up in the fertile city ground of Chicago, but Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Detroit are also significant legal centers in the Midwest. The region has a lot to offer junior associates, but don't think you can just waltz in unannounced; our BigLaw sources suggested applicants "have a good explanation for being in the area. Just about everyone here has some kind of familial tie to the state. Firms want you to stay, and if you don't have a clear reason they'll be wondering how long it'll be before you leave for New York or Houston or wherever. That's a generality for Midwest firms. There are out-of-towners, but there's always a link."

A local link should also set you in good stead in terms of your appreciation of 'Midwestern values,' often a big deal to firms based here – think humility, honesty, unpretentiousness, a hard-working attitude and wholesome Uncle Buck-style family loyalty (minus the urge to imprison miscreant teen boyfriends in the trunk). Lois Casaleggi, senior director of the University of Chicago Law School career services, explains: “I think the culture inside law firms would be a little different compared to, say, New York. Midwesterners are generally a little more down to earth, friendly and polite. It's just a different vibe. However, the environment is also really hard-working – you're not going to be kicking your feet up.”

Our sources at Midwest firms concurred. Squire Sanders juniors told us that "our firm's Midwestern in its attitude, meaning that it's much more laid back and low key. That doesn't mean we're not sophisticated or aggressive when we need to be, or capable of pulling off complex deals, but we're also very good-natured and easy to deal with, with no big egos." An associate at Schiff Hardin felt similarly: “We value our Midwestern culture, which means we value modesty and humility. We're not looking for showboats – we want people who are motivated to do an excellent job, but who aren't necessarily driven by competition.” Rookie associates felt that the region is a good place to raise children, thanks to relatively low property prices and "family-oriented" values that allow for a better work/life balance than in New York.

All things 'go 

Home to the world's first skyscraper, a steel-framed high-rise built in 1885, Chicago is an urban jungle to rival any in the world. As America's third-largest city (behind New York and LA), Chicago has a predictably expansive legal market, with a surprisingly big emphasis on tech work. “When people think about tech, they usually think Silicon Valley, but Chicago has a vibrant tech market that is not always as well known, with companies like Motorola and Groupon, to name just two," Casaleggi notes. "There are a lot of media companies here, old and new. Part of the appeal is that it does a lot of things well. Locally the business community is so diverse and strong, and that feeds into the legal market." It's a growing industry: in fall 2015 the Quarterly Census of Employment revealed that Chicago's largest county Cook County had notched up a 3.6% rise in employment in professional & technical services. Scientific research & development services grew by 21.1% in the same period, and an additional 6.2% also flocked to the city's computer systems design services sector. The city is also home to big media companies like regional television studios, radio corporations, and major newspaper publishers like Tribune and the now-depleted Sun-Times Media, which once housed Conrad Black's vast international media empire and still owns dozens of local newspapers.

Chicago started out as a blue-collar town, shaped by migrants from all over Southern, Eastern and Western Europe. These roots are evident in its most famous culinary inventions: artery-clogging deep dish pizza and the Chicago hot dog, dressed with mustard, onion and celery salt (add ketchup at your peril). The city's high murder rate – 269 were reported in 2015, up 12.5% on 2014 – topped the charts for US cities in 2015, though there have been strong police attempts to discourage gang violence recently. There's also lots of state money going into beautification projects. Casaleggi tells us that “being on the lake is such a huge advantage – the water gives the city a different feel and opens up a lot of activities. There are bike paths, running paths, beaches, and you can rent boats. It's a city that is very abundant in green spaces, and there are parks everywhere.” As well as being famously windy, Chicago is also rather chilly, so in winter pedestrians make for the pedways – five miles of underground and overhead walkways that connect the city's downtown.

Charlotte Wager, chief talent officer at Chicago-headquartered firm Jenner & Block, tells us: “I was struck by Chicago being a modern, metropolitan and sophisticated city with theater, opera, beautiful architecture, museums, parks and the magnificent lakefront, but without some of the stresses that come with living on either coast.” She reports that “the Chicago legal community is small and close-knit – not necessarily in numbers but in the way it operates – which makes practicing law here all the more enjoyable. It's very supportive.” The Chicago Bar Association is a popular center for lawyerly life in the city, with its wood-burning fireplace, popular lunchroom and full program of social events, including the annual musical comedy revue. The show's been running for more than 90 years, and pun-tastic show titles like 'A Christmas Quarrel,' 'Pay Miserables' and 'The Merry Old Land of Lawz' suggest its wit is evergreen.

Put Your Hands Up 4 Detroit 

Defeated by a population decline of more than 60% since its 1950s heyday, Detroit filed the largest-ever municipal bankruptcy case in 2013. But in the past few years the acres of boarded-up and crumbling houses and public buildings have attracted swaths of young professionals and empty-nesters to the city. Value for money and opportunity for investment has proven an attractive lure, and since 2008 the sale of luxury homes has risen by 107%. Detroit now offers a legal scene that stretches beyond foreclosures and bankruptcies, with real estate and emerging company work growing fast. Sarah Staup, director of professional personnel at Detroit-founded Dykema Gossett, tells us: “We are seeing more and more younger associates living in Detroit. This past recruitment season we had a couple of people who wanted to be here. We wanted to put them in our suburban office [in Bloomfield Hills] due to their practice, but they wanted to be down here. Detroit has challenges, but it has growing sectors that are attracting young professionals and art groups.” Part of this is because “the cost of living is really manageable. If you aspire to own a home, you are able to do that here.” Duane Morris, Foley & Lardner and Pepper Hamilton also have offices in Detroit; elsewhere in Michigan, there's Schiff Hardin and Dykema in Ann Arbor.

Staup goes on to tell us about “up north, where there's so much natural beauty and all sorts of recreational opportunities. This state is an absolute find for anyone who's into the outdoors. And if you are into sports at all, it's a mecca.” Indeed, in addition to major league teams of the 'big four' variety (baseball, basketball, hockey and football), there's the lake and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which offer every water-based diversion imaginable. There's also the country's only feather bowling alley in Detroit's Cadieux Cafe. We hear the quirky sport is a niche interest even in its homeland of Belgium.

A sailor went to CCC 

The three Cs for a successful legal career in Ohio are Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Although they don't always boast the same big names as Chicago, each has a bustling legal market. Cleveland, birthplace of Jones Day and Squire Patton Boggs, has suffered from a bad rep in the past. Efforts to renovate the area and bring about an urban renaissance have been ongoing since the 80s, and in spite of ups and downs there are concrete results to suggest that the haters might just be out of touch with the real Cleveland. As one proud associate there said, “at law school they told us we're one of the biggest legal markets between Chicago and New York."

The medical center Cleveland Clinic has been ranked as one of the top five hospitals in the US and is widely recognized as a big contributor to Ohio's thriving bioscience industry. The city isn't lagging behind culturally either: a $350 million architectural renovation of the Cleveland Museum of Art was initiated in 2002 with a view toward catering to citizens and tourists, and there's also the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, designed by top dog of modern architecture I M Pei, on the lakefront, as well as the Playhouse Square, the second-largest performing arts center in the US (right behind the Lincoln Center).

Columbus is the capital of the Buckeye State, and its swing-state politics have attracted an "unusual number of top political minds," says one Ohio State student. Culture is the order of the day in Columbus: the local cuisine is highly revered, and annual music and arts festival ComFest comes highly recommended. Speaking of cuisine, Cincinnati once adopted the moniker 'Porkopolis' for its thriving pork industry in the 19th century – apparently the excess of pork fat that came as a result provided Messrs Procter and Gamble with the means to build a thriving soap business. For the most part, the city's broken free of its porky past and is increasingly a retreat for hipsters setting up microbreweries. Another claim to fame is the Cincinnati Reds, America's first official baseball team.

Money talks 

The Midwest has been called America's breadbasket, and indeed its rich soil makes it some of the most lucrative farmland in the world. As well as wheat for your daily loaf, there's soybeans, corn and cattle in abundance. Over the past few years, farmers have been struggling with drought conditions as well as unexpected torrential rain, both of which have prompted them to ramp up the pressure on the government to maintain crop insurance payments. So-called 'ag-gag' laws are another farming legal battleground: these essentially ban journalists and protesters from filming inside agricultural facilities or taking on jobs with the intention of reporting on their findings.

Industry is the other traditional cornerstone of the Midwestern economy, particularly in Michigan, where the economy is driven by the 'big three' automobile manufacturers that have dominated the home-grown scene for nearly a century: Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. Detroit's dramatic rise and decline has become a lesson in the unreliable fortunes of the American motor industry. When times are good, orders surge. When times are bad, potential customers are thin on the ground, and those that remain are more likely to be tempted by the growing variety of foreign imports.

Barack Obama opted to bail out the motor industry in 2009 by handing Chrysler and General Motors billion-dollar loans. Since then, the industry has made an impressive turnaround. Low replacement rates during the recession mean that the average American car is now a grand old age of 11.5 years, an all-time high. This is good news for manufacturers, because as the economy recovers and household wealth grows, the demand for new vehicles is surging. Sarah Staup feels that “we have finally turned the corner, and there's a positive horizon ahead – we're used to getting tough economic news in Michigan, so we can recover pretty quickly.”

The Midwest as a whole continues to pull out of the recession, and former industrial centers are forging new identities as their inner city areas regenerate and redevelop. Still, there are plenty of long-term challenges to the region's economy. An aging population, combined with a historical resistance to immigration, means the workforce is shrinking, even as the demand for jobs picks up. Meanwhile, the strong dollar is a threat to Chicago's growing tech expertise, and long-term it's hard to be sure that the recovery of the automobile industry will stay on the road to success. For young lawyers, though, the region offers a wide array of international BigLaw options, combined with low house prices, the promise of a livable work/life balance, and a more low-key way of life.