Big Law Firms Resume Hiring – Odds Improve for New Graduates, Though Levels Remain Soft

Big Law Firms Resume Hiring – Odds Improve for New Graduates, Though Levels Remain Soft

Entry-level hiring at major law firms is ramping back up from the recession-era doldrums.

But students with their hearts set on a job at a big firm still face plenty of competition.

The class of 2013 was the largest crop yet, releasing 46,776 graduates into a job market already awash with unemployed lawyers.

“There’s the idea that only the top 10% of the class is going to get the big-firm job,” said Chaloea Williams, a 2014 Boston University School of Law graduate who will join Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP this fall as a first-year associate. To boost her odds, she pushed herself to network, joining the National Black Law Students Association and getting to know practicing lawyers in the Boston legal market.

The chances of landing a job at a large law firm have improved from the hiring nadir a few years back, when sputtering demand for legal services triggered layoffs and cutbacks. Of class-of-2013 law graduates working in private practice about nine months after graduation, 20.6% landed a job at a firm with more than 500 lawyers, according to the National Association for Law Placement. Such positions accounted for 16.2% of law-firm jobs held by 2011 graduates.

But the total number of such jobs taken by the class of 2013 remains far lower than for the class of 2009: 3,980 positions compared with 5,156.

Junior lawyer positions at major law firms offer prestige and excellent pay, with an average starting salary of $160,000. The grinding work load isn’t for everyone, however.

The recruiting process is lengthy: Firms typically interview students after the first year of law school for coveted summer slots the following year. Those who do well usually are invited to join the firm after they graduate.

“The overall demand for legal services has certainly dropped at all levels, and incoming lawyers have not been excluded from that,” said Joseph Torres, chairman of the hiring committee at Winston & Strawn LLP, where the 2014 summer class is about half the size it was five years ago.

Sarah Damerville graduated from Boston University’s Law School in May and got a job at the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges as a first year associate. M. Scott Brauer for The Wall Street Journal
The employment outlook for new lawyers is expected to brighten some over the next few years, as plunging law-school enrollments will ease the glut of new graduates—”the pig working its way through the snake,” in the words of one law-firm manager. Of 2013 graduates, 64.4% had jobs for which bar passage was required, according to the NALP, and 51.1% of employed graduates were working in private practice.

For now, the hiring picture at major firms varies widely. This fall, the group of first-year associates joining New York’s elite Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP will be about the same size as the starting class from 2009. “I would say we’re back,” said William Fogg, managing partner of the firm’s corporate department.

Roughly 20 big law firms, including WilmerHale, have boosted the size of their first-year class since 2009, according to Chambers Associate, a legal publication aimed at law students. “The trend indicates recovery, but we are very unlikely to see hiring at prerecession levels any day soon,” said Antony Cooke, the guide’s editor.

Indeed, other firms have ratcheted back their starting and summer classes as much as 50% over the same time period. They include DLA Piper, the world’s biggest law firm by head count and revenue. The firm has more than 4,000 lawyers, but its summer class is down to 34 this year from 68 in 2009. Boston’s Bingham McCutchen LLP, revenue for which fell about $110 million last year, has trimmed its 2014 summer associate ranks by 69% from 2009.

Bankruptcy heavyweight Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, which last June slashed some partners’ pay and laid off 170 junior lawyers and staff in response to slack demand, also has cut back on hiring. This year Weil brought on a summer class of 76 trainees, less than half the size of its 2009 class, according to Chambers Associate.

This year “has been incredibly busy for us and we are actively hiring additional junior associates and planning for a larger summer-associate class next year,” a Weil Gotshal spokeswoman said.

Several factors can contribute to swings in class size, such as deferrals from students who clerk for judges after graduation.

Many firms also are staffing cases differently in response to pushback from clients regarding fees. Some legal work that novice lawyers once did, such as reviewing documents for litigation, is now routinely assigned to outside vendors or experienced lawyers who aren’t on partner track, who can do it less expensively and more efficiently.

Several firms also are trying to better match their hiring with client demand—a difficult task, given the two-year recruiting pipeline.

Some are planning more conservative first-year class sizes, then filling in if demand picks up by hiring associates from other firms or recruiting third-year law students who weren’t summer trainees.

“There are a couple of prominent national firms that have contacted us about 3Ls because they did not have summer associate coverage,” said Tom Ksobiech, assistant dean for career services, at University of Alabama School of Law.

Some firms that reduced on-campus recruitment during the down years are reaching out to more schools but interviewing candidates through videoconference instead of visiting in person, Mr. Ksobiech said.

Summer classes also are getting larger at big firms in Atlanta, New Orleans, Nashville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., he said, though not to prerecession levels.

“It’s still very much a buyer’s market,” Mr. Ksobiech said.

Source: The Wall Street Journal Law Blog

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