Alan Woodlief, interim dean, and professor of law at Elon University School of Law, has seen the growth of the legal industry in the Carolinas firsthand.
The reason behind the growth? The addition of “big law,” and national firms setting up firms in the Carolinas, he says.
Numbers from bar associations in both states seem to support his view.
According to the South Carolina and North Carolina Bar Associations, bar membership has been increasing over the past six years. In 2016 the South Carolina Bar reported having 439 new admittees, and the North Carolina Bar reported having 548 new admittees. This is contrasted by the substantial growth reported in 2021 when the South Carolina Bar recorded 550 new admittees, and the North Carolina Bar recorded 911 new admittees.
“I’ve noticed just by hearing names popping up more and more that we’ve had a good number of national law firms come into the state, in particular Charlotte and Raleigh,” Woodlief said.
Some of the most influential additions to the “big law” scene in the Carolinas include Womble Bond Dickenson, and Offit Kurman. In 2017, Womble Bond Dickenson was founded in Winston-Salem, following a merger between UK-based Bond Dickinson and U.S.-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. The firm now has 23 locations in the U.S. alone, with 35% of their U.S. locations in the Carolinas. Offit Kurman, a national law firm opened a Charlotte office in 2019, since then the firm has also opened offices in Greensboro, Rock Hill, and Spartanburg.
While there are many national firms from across the country expanding into the Carolinas, there are some that have been operating here for nearly over a century.
Large Carolina firm, Parker Poe was founded in Charlotte in 1884, they now have six offices in the Carolinas. The national law firm, McGuireWoods, has had a presence Charlotte since 1922. They now have 21 locations globally, two of which are in North Carolina. Currently one of the largest law firms in the Carolinas, Moore & Van Allen was founded in Charlotte in 1945. Moore & Van Allen now consists of nearly 400 attorneys with offices in North and South Carolina. One of South Carolinas largest firms, Nexsen Pruet was founded in 1945 in Columbia. Nexsen Pruet now has nine offices, nationally, eight of which are in the Carolinas.
Whether moving to or expanding within the Carolinas, the number of attorneys at Carolina firms is increasing.
In the past few months alone, North Carolina and South Carolina Lawyers Weekly have reported the addition of staff to many firms in the Carolinas including Young Moore, Womble Bond Dickenson, Riddle and Brantley, Gordon and Rees, Fisher Phillips, Ellis and Winters, and Morgan and Morgan.
Partner from growing firm, Womble Bond and Dickenson, Clark Goodman, believes that Charlotte’s growth has made it imperative for firms with a strong presence in the Carolinas to have an office in Charlotte.
While the law industry in Charlotte is growing rapidly, this trend is not unique to law, but rather coincides with the recent increase in big businesses, infrastructure, and population in the city. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Charlotte has been named the 8th fastest-growing city in the nation.
“The recent acceleration in Charlotte’s growth has increasingly attracted national and international law firms without an existing presence in the region,” Goodman said. “A Charlotte office allows these firms to serve Charlotte’s substantial financial services sector and its growing population of Fortune 1000 companies in high-growth sectors such as manufacturing and technology. Charlotte’s combination of urban amenities and lifestyle advantages over larger, more expensive markets also makes the city an attractive base from which to serve national clients.”
According to data from multiple North Carolina and South Carolina-based law schools, this recent growth in the law field can be seen throughout university statistics as well. Larry Cunningham, provost, dean, and professor of law at Charleston School of Law, has seen this expansion translated into an uptick in applications and interest in Charleston School of Law. This trend is mirrored by application statistics at Elon University School of Law as well.
“We reached that low watermark in 2014 with 599 applications,” Woodlief said. “Now we’re regularly over 900 applications and have been over 1000 applications.”
After attending law school in the Carolinas, it is common for many students – even those who came from different states – to stay in the Carolinas to begin their professional careers. According to April Giancola, assistant dean of Career and Professional Development at Campbell Law School, over the past four years, they have seen about 77% of students stay in North Carolina after graduating from Campbell.
Aside from many recent law graduates choosing to stay in the Carolinas, Bar Association statistics show that they are successfully landing jobs as well. According to Rob Birrenkott, assistant dean of Career Development at Carolina Law, the American Bar Association reported that three out of the top 10 law schools with the highest legal employment percentage 10 months post-graduation in the nation were located in North Carolina.
While there has been steady growth in the law field in the Carolinas since 2016, the year with the largest increase of bar association memberships was between 2020 to 2021. Much of this change can be linked to the effect that the COVID-19 virus had on professional life, resulting in many professionals working from home.
“The fact that so many legal employers would now be comfortable with remote work is something that you really wouldn’t have anticipated before the pandemic,” Birrenkott said. “Afterwards, it’s certainly something that has shifted and changed. A lot of legal players are still comfortable with employees working in a remote capacity. When the pandemic originally hit, we thought there was going to be a reduction in hiring. We were really prepared for the worst regarding what’s going to happen to all our grads, but what’s resulted has been a demand for legal services and the demand for legal hiring.”
After the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, many people began working remotely, giving many professionals the opportunity to move to places different from where their jobs were located, undoubtedly contributing to the growing populations in North Carolina and South Carolina. Between the 2020 and 2021 census, the North Carolina population increased by 112,000 people – 1.1%. In the same time period, South Carolina recorded a total population growth of 72,280 – a 1.4% increase from 2020. With this growing population comes new and growing businesses as well as the need for more attorneys.
“Earlier this year, Business Facilities Magazine and CNBC ranked North Carolina as the top state in the country for business,” Goodman said. “The Carolinas’ inherent business advantages and commitment to investment in economic development will fuel continued growth. With the arrival of new businesses and the workforce that supports them, the demand for local legal services will also continue to grow.”
Another contributing factor to the increased law activity in the Carolinas can be linked to the implementation of the Uniform Bar Exam in 2017. The Uniform Bar Exam consists of 36 states including North Carolina and South Carolina, allowing attorneys to take the score they earned in one state and transfer it to any of the states involved. As a result, the law world has experienced significantly more mobility among lawyers that did not exist prior to this change.
“I just think North Carolina is a really fantastic legal market because you’ve got such a diverse and strong economy,” Birrenkott said. “You’ve got a combination of a really strong talent pool with great law schools as well.”