Entry-Level Hiring Continues to Increase in Law Firms
02-16-2000

The market for entry-level associates at law firms remains strong, according to Patterns & Practices: Measures of Law Finn Hiring, Leverage & Billable Hours, a new publication from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). Entry-level hiring increased by about 13% from 1997-98 and again from 1998-99, with over one quarter of offices increasing entry-level hiring by more than 50%. In contrast, growth in the hiring of second-year summer associates slowed from a 15.6% increase in 1997-98 to a 9% increase in 1998-99. Firms of 100 or fewer attorneys generally did not match the 1998-99 growth rates of larger fans.

Lateral hiring increased by about 7% between 1997 and 1998, with firms hiring about 1.4 laterals for every entry-level hire. This increase notwithstanding, a plurality of offices reported decreased lateral hiring between 1997 and 1998.

Using information drawn from the two most recent editions of the National Directory of Legal Employers, published by NALP and Harcourt Brace, Patterns & Practices provides expansive documentation of the hiring of entry-level associates, summer associates, and laterals at about 1,000 law offices representing over 600 major law firms nationwide. NALP's unique access to such broad coverage over time makes Patterns & Practices the premier source for valuable perspectives on hiring at the national, state, regional, and city level.

Although the increases in associate hiring were nationwide, distinct regional differences emerged. The change in lateral hiring ranged from a slight decrease in the Midwest to growth of 23% in the Southeast. Increases in entry-level hiring ranged from about 6% in the Midwest to 21.5% in the Southeast.

Among the cities that collectively hired at least 100 entry-level associates in 1999, increased hiring from 1998 to 1999 ranged from 38% in Houston to -1.6% in San Francisco. In some cities, the change from 1998 to 1999 is very different from the change from 1997 to 1998. For example, Houston's 38% increase from 1998 to 1999 compares with just 3% in the prior period. Boston and Philadelphia also showed large contrasts.

Lateral hiring increases were greatest in firms of 101-250 attorneys, about double the national average. Among larger cities (again, those whose firms collectively hired more than 100 laterals in 1998) lateral growth was particularly strong in Atlanta, Houston, and Philadelphia. In contrast, lateral hiring decreased in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis.

Patterns & Practices documents other findings, including:

  • Nationwide, 90% of second-year summer associates considered for an associate position received an offer. This ranged from about 79% in firms of 100 or fewer attorneys to about 93% in large firms. At the city level, in Austin 73% of 1998 summer associates considered received an offer; in Boston, nearly all (98%) summer associates did so.
  • In 1999, firms on average employed slightly more associates than partners, for a ratio of 1. 12. Large firms are typically more highly leveraged, with a ratio of 1.45. Smaller firms, in contrast, employ fewer associates than partners. On a city-by-city basis, these figures ranged from 0.62 in Portland, Oregon to 1.95 in Menlo Park.
  • About 21% of offices overall reported an average of more than 1,950 billable hours per year for 1998. Interestingly, an equal percentage reported an average of fewer than 1,800 hours per year. Even in the largest firms of more than 250 attorneys, just one quarter of offices reported average billable hours in excess of 1,950 per year.
  • Although billable hour requirements ranged from 1,400 to 2,200 hours per year in 1998, most offices require either 1,800 or 1,900 hours (30.5% and 27.5% of offices, respectively). About 29% of offices in New York City require 2,000 billable hours. In Houston, however, the figure was even higher, 36%.

In addition to documenting broad nationwide and regional hiring trends, the I 14-page report presents detailed information on entry-level and lateral hiring, offers, leverage ratios, and billable hours for 28 cities and 10 states, including:

Cities - Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Hartford, Houston, Irvine, Los Angeles, Menlo Park, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, Palo Alto, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon), San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, and Washington, DC.

States - California (outside Irvine, Los Angeles, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, San Diego, and San Francisco), Florida (outside Miami and Tampa), Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York (outside New York City), Texas (outside Austin, Dallas, and Houston), Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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