Emerging from one of the most dismal law firm recruiting seasons in years, law schools are preparing for what early signs indicate will be an improved job market for their students.
The annual ritual of on-campus interviews for positions as summer associates kicks off Thursday at Columbia Law School with its early interview program, which runs until Aug. 17. And in an encouraging sign for the legal job market, Columbia Law reports that the number of interviews law firms have agreed to conduct with second-year students has increased by 8 percent to 8,780.
"It will probably still be smaller summer classes than it was in 2007 and 2008," said Petal Modeste, dean of career services at Columbia Law. "But I don't think they will be as small across the board as they were last year. I think a good number of the firms will edge back up closer to where they used to be."
The prospect of increased hiring contrasts sharply with what was seen last fall, when New York firms cut summer associate offers by 44 percent to a median of 29, according to a report in March by the National Association for Law Placement. Summer employment in New York City's legal sector this year dropped to levels last seen in 1991, according to the New York State Department of Labor.
"Most firms have scaled back as far as they could, so it makes sense to me that we would see some growth," said James Leipold, executive director of NALP.
Substantial increases are expected at some New York firms that made major reductions last year. This summer, Cravath, Swaine & Moore had just 22 summer associates, down from 121 in 2009. For summer 2011, the firm is looking to increase the number to about 70 to 80, a source said.
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, meanwhile, plans to hire 100 summer associates firmwide, up from the 78 it hosted in 2010, a source said. In New York, the number would increase from the 34 that worked there this summer to between 40 and 50, the source said.
Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy had just 16 summer associates in New York this year, compared to 60 in 2009. But for 2011, Milbank is looking to boost that number to up to 50, said hiring partner Jay Grushkin.
"The workload justifies it," he said. "We're firing on all cylinders and want to get back to more of a normal intake level."
White & Case is shooting to hire 35 summer associates in New York, up from the 21 who are finishing work there now, said J. William Dantzler Jr., a hiring partner at the firm. Nationally, White & Case also expects to have a "roughly commensurate" increase in hiring, he said.
"The economy is coming back slowly, and we're feeling better about our ability to absorb the people we deferred," he said. "It's not full speed ahead, but it's cautiously optimistic half speed ahead."
Hiring at some firms is constrained as they attempt to absorb incoming associates whose start dates were delayed. At Shearman & Sterling, for example, 54 deferred associates from the graduating class of 2009 will not begin work until early 2011. And the firm deferred incoming associates who graduated this year until no later than October 2011.
As a result, Shearman only brought on 27 summer associates in New York this year, compared to 129 in 2008. And the firm plans to keep its hiring flat, said John Cannon III, a Shearman hiring partner.
"Obviously, the economy does not seem to have quite righted itself," making it difficult to predict if there will be an increase in demand, Cannon said. "Given the way the market for associates is, there's always the possibility we could supplement a summer class with future hiring. Over-hiring creates greater problems than under-hiring," he added.
SHIFT IN DEMAND
That recruiting has not returned to the highs of a few years ago is a reflection of business conditions. A recent report by consulting firm Hildebrandt Baker Robbins found that demand for law firm services nationwide was flat in the second quarter compared to a year earlier and was down 1 percent in New York City. Firms for the third straight quarter also reduced attorney head count, with a 1.6 percent drop nationally, the report said.
"We're definitely seeing more optimistic outlooks from firms, and I think people have a fairly good handle on a recovery going forward," said Sharon Weinberg, managing director of J.P. Morgan's law firm group. "But I don't think anyone thinks we're going back to the glory days."
But after laying off hundreds of associates nationally, some firms are in need of new attorneys to avoid what could become a generation gap, said Jeffrey Grossman, national managing director with Wells Fargo Wealth Management. The associates cut by firms in 2008 and 2009 were largely first-years and mid-levels, he said.
Firms are "making sure there isn't a void two years out," he said.
Another factor is the prospect that mid-level associates will find other jobs. Attrition at law firms had been "artificially low for a year to 18 months, because there weren't a lot of opportunities out there," said Jorge Juantorena, a hiring partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. "As the economy starts to pick up we're projecting people will start to see opportunities and take them."
Cleary Gottlieb, which hosted 76 summer associates this year, plans for a "slight" increase for next year, Juantorena said, likely in the "high double digits." In 2008, the firm had 96 summer associates.
At Columbia Law, the number of firms signed up for its recruiting session at the DoubleTree Guest Suites Hotel at 47th Street and 7th Avenue is up in part because employers that stopped hiring are back to business, Modeste said. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, for example, has returned after canceling its 2010 summer associate program.
MORE FIRMS PARTICIPATE
Columbia Law declined to say how many firms in total will be recruiting its second-years. The school hosted 132 unique employers last year, according to a student with access to a list. A Columbia Law spokesman declined to confirm that number or say whether it is the basis of what the school says is a 17 percent hike in the number of firms participating this year.
Other law schools are likewise preparing for increased hiring. Harvard Law School has told its students to expect a "modest increase" in summer positions and offers after the number of employers on campus and the number of scheduled interviews increased 5 percent to 10 percent, said Mark Weber, assistant dean for career services. Weber declined to provide more specific figures.
New York University School of Law meanwhile has seen about an 8 percent increase in on-campus interviews for second- and third-year students, said Irene Dorzback, assistant dean for career services. The number of interviews conducted last year could not be determined before press time.
Despite the prospect of better luck landing jobs, some Columbia Law students remain concerned about the economy. The vast majority of more than 450 students entering their second year are participating in the interview program that begins Wednesday.
"Everyone is much more worried about anything they do and anything they say," said Chris Hazlehurst, a rising second-year participating in the interview process.
Their concerns are also reflected in the fact that they are seeking interviews with firms outside the group of top-ranked New York firms.
At Columbia, students rank up to 30 firms by preference. The school then pairs them with firms prioritizing through a lottery. Most students expect to sit down with 15 to 20 firms.
In the boom years, Columbia students would have bid almost exclusively to meet with New York's highest ranking firms, with Skadden, Cravath, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett scoring near the top. While those types of firms are still getting plenty of interview requests, students are also expanding their choices, said Mohit Gourisaria, a rising second-year at Columbia.
"They spread out their bids," he said. "They're not just bidding for the most prestigious firms."
Columbia students also typically looked to work in Washington, D.C. But there is evidence they are tapping into other legal markets. Until the recession, Philadelphia-based Duane Morris collected resumes at Columbia rather than having a presence on-campus, a spokesman said. But last year, the firm had enough interest from students to justify conducting interviews during the August recruiting program.
Duane Morris also will attend Columbia's recruiting session on Monday, the spokesman said, even though most of its summer associate jobs are in Philadelphia.
Ms. Modeste said challenges remain for students to land jobs. Boom times are not back yet, so firms are "still going to be careful about who they hire," she said.
"But I do feel optimistic, I tell you," she said. "I really do."
Brooklyn Law School also begins its on campus interviews this week. And Cornell Law School, meanwhile, will hold its New York City job fair, its largest off-site interviewing program, at the Embassy Suites in lower Manhattan beginning Wednesday through Friday.