Law firm employment has suffered during the recession, with summer associate programs — the traditional means of bringing young lawyers into a company — in particular taking a hit. But some firms said after several years of declining recruitment, the pullback in hiring may be starting to ease.
“When the economy takes a dip, it takes a while for the legal market to recover,” said Rebekah Verona, director of career planning at Rutgers School of Law-Camden. “Even though there may be other indicators of recovery from the recession, the legal market lags behind that.”
In light of the slow recovery in the industry, law firms are thinking differently than in better times when it comes to hiring, she said. Companies, especially larger firms, have traditionally hired two years in advance, making offers of employment to second-year law students finishing their summer associate programs to work after graduating law school.
But in the current economy, “to anticipate what the need is going to be two years ahead of time can be difficult,” she said. Some firms have reduced or canceled their summer associate programs, while others are looking to recruit third-year, rather than second-year, students, Verona said.
“In a recessionary period, the need for young lawyers isn’t the same as before,” said James. H Carll, chairman of the board at law firm Archer & Greiner, in Haddonfield. Many large firms have canceled summer associate programs, or deferred their new hires by a year, he said.
In 2008, Archer & Greiner had eight law students in its summer associate program and hired seven new law graduates; in 2010, the firm had six summer associates, but recruited only two attorneys out of law school, he said. This year, the number of summer associates has risen to seven, but it’s still too early to make any employment offers, Carll said.
With fewer lawyers recruited through summer associates programs, more are trying to get hired through other means, said Chris Boyle, hiring partner at Drinker Biddle, a law firm with New Jersey offices in Florham Park and Princeton. “If they’re coming in on a contract basis, and if they prove they have all the right stuff, they can be hired on as a full-time associate,” he said. “More students are trying to get in on that type of basis.”
But the dismal employment outlook may be improving, Carll said. Based on clients’ projected needs for 2012, “we will be hiring more than we did for 2011,” he said. While transactional work has been down the past several years, “that will change as the economy comes back.”
The year, 2008 “was the last of the heyday” for law firm hiring, Boyle said. He expects the firm — which had eight new hires in New Jersey in the past 12 months — to recruit at the same or slightly higher level next year.
“I don’t think we’re going back to 2008 for a while,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re going back the other way, that’s for sure.”
For more on legal employment and summer law associates, see Monday’s edition of NJBIZ.