The firm requires associates to bill about 1,600 hours per year, Nataupsky said, compared with 2,000 or more at full-service firms. And as a general rule, associates make partner after six years -- less time than at other top firms.
As a trade-off, incoming associates, many of whom hold advanced degrees in science and technology, make $150,000 annually, a notch below the going rate of $160,000 at many major firms.
Overall, the job market continues unfavorably for recent graduates, although it's too early to know exactly how the class of 2012 is faring. For the class of 2011 -- the latest data available from NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement -- employment rates hit an 18-year low. Nine months after graduation, 85.6 percent of the class had secured employment -- down by 6 percentage points from the all-time high employment rate of nearly 92 percent in 2007.
Not quite 66 percent of the 2011 graduates were in jobs that required bar membership -- down by 9 percent since 2008.
Along with energy practices, jobs in intellectual property -- both patent prosecution and litigation -- are the best bets for job-seekers, said consultant Kent Zimmermann of the Zeughauser Group.
"The U.S. is the envy of the world when it comes to innovation, which often necessitates protecting IP, and we are also the world's hellhole litigation jurisdiction," he said.
Knobbe Martens added 21 associates to its Irvine office, five in San Diego, two in San Francisco and one each in Seattle and Washington.
The ideal job applicant, Nataupsky said, holds an engineering degree from a "good school," solid law school grades and real-world experience. The ability to communicate is also critical, he said.
"It's amazing the caliber of applicants coming through," he said -- their credentials exceed his own when he was starting out. "If I sent my resume through the firm, I wouldn't get looked at."