The United States' largest law firms this year suffered the deepest cuts in their attorney numbers since The National Law Journal began tracking their census figures more than 30 years ago.
The total number of attorneys working at the top 250 law firms plunged by 5,259 lawyers. Put another way, it's as if all of the lawyers working at two firms the size of Jones Day vanished in 2009.
The results of the 32nd annual National Law Journal survey of the nation's 250 largest law firms provide a vivid picture of the toll that the economic recession exacted from law firms this year. The 4.0 percent decline in the total number of attorneys marked only the third time that the lawyer count among the group has dropped since the NLJstarted collecting headcount data in 1978. The last time totals backslid was in 1993, when they dipped by 0.9 percent. The first decline was in 1992, when they fell by 1 percent. The tally this year wipes away nearly one-third of the growth that firms made during the past five years and puts many of them well below levels they enjoyed in 2005.
The number of attorneys in 2009 sank to 126,669 lawyers, compared with 131,928 attorneys last year. In 2008, the number of attorneys increased by 4.3 percent.
Among the top 75 law firms on the list, 15 had reductions of more than 100 lawyers. Of the top 50, seven cut more than 200 attorneys. The firm with the largest percentage decrease was No. 95 Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, which declined by 26.4 percent to 468 attorneys from 636 in 2008. Last year, the firm held the No. 58 slot in the rankings. The firm losing the greatest number of attorneys was Latham & Watkins, which shed 444 lawyers. It had 1,878 attorneys this year, compared with 2,322 in 2008, for a 19.1 percent decline. It slid from No. 4 to No. 6 in the ranking.
Taking the No. 1 position on the NLJ 250 was Baker & McKenzie, which had 3,949 attorneys. The firm maintained that position from the NLJ 250's inception until 2007, when DLA Piper edged it out. DLA Piper took the No. 2 spot this year. Its lawyer population fell by 7.3 pecent, to 3,450 attorneys from 3,721 attorneys in 2008. Last on this year's list is newcomer Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, based in Portland, Ore. It reported 164 attorneys.
The greatest movement among the top 10 firms came from K&L Gates, which rose to No. 7 this year with 1,813 lawyers from No. 10 in 2008. It broke into the top 10 last year, when it had 1,726 attorneys.
Not surprisingly, associate ranks were hit hard by work force reductions. The percentage of those attorneys shrank by 8.7 percent, to 61,733 from 67,648 last year.
In addition to laid-off associates, the decline reflects would-be first-year associates whose start dates law firms deferred. Of the 250 firms on the list, 113 reported that they deferred a total of 2,784 associates. That figure represents 42 percent of the 6,636 law graduates who would have been in the incoming first-year associate class. The average number of associates deferred per firm was 25.
At the same time, partner employment, as a whole, remained unscathed. The number of partners in 2009 was 53,468, compared with 52,980 in 2008, an increase of 0.9 percent. Among the top 50 firms, 30 increased their partner totals. The results confirm that law firms' strategy in managing the downturn was to save the partners -- and partnerships. "The cuts made were done primarily to preserve workloads for partners," said Ward Bower, a consultant with Altman Weil. And perhaps troubling to clients, "it suggests that work done by partners is work that associates could do," he added.
Attorneys in the "other" category proved the most expendable. The category includes nonpartner, nonassociate lawyers, including counsel, of counsel, senior counsel and staff attorneys. That group nosedived by 8.9 percent to 11,433 from 12,547 in 2008.
The overall downturn in totals this year was partly a correction of the rapid growth that NLJ 250 firms experienced during the preceding five years. Between 2004 and 2008, firms added 21,948 attorneys. Many firms declined to near or below their numbers of five years ago. Latham & Watkins' total this year of 1,878 was just 38 attorneys more than it had in 2005. The firm announced in February that it was laying off 190 attorneys, a move that followed speculation about other unreported attorney reductions. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, with 1,243 attorneys, fell below its 2005 number of 1,281. Other top firms with this year's totals lower than their 2005 results were Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; McDermott Will & Emery; Shearman & Sterling; O'Melveny & Myers; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; and Fulbright & Jaworski.