It’s never been like this. In the three decades that The National Law Journal has been counting lawyers at big law firms, headcount has nearly always grown. In fact, the two times it has dropped, the decline was 1% or less. This year, headcount dived by nearly 4% — or, as Associate Editor Leigh Jones notes in her overview on this year’s results, enough to fill a couple of huge law firms.

Actually, the numbers are even more stark. For 20 years, the average annual growth rate for the NLJ 250 has been close to 4%. So this year’s decline, when coupled with the usual growth rate, is more like 8%. In rough terms, that’s 10,000 lawyers. All year, we’ve heard how different in scope this recession has been. And this year’s NLJ 250 shows exactly how tough the legal business has become.

This survey, now in its 32d year, is a big undertaking, and our team — led by the aforementioned and indefatigable Jones — have gathered numbers from some 300 firms. We’re assisted by ALM’s research team, and by our reporters, who sift through thousands of data points and distill them into this annual special report. Obviously, the numbers that they’ve collected this year show a profession in turmoil. Perhaps it’s not surprising, but this year’s stats are certainly unprecedented. And given the continuing weakness in the economy, it may only be the beginning.

David Brown, editor in chief

FEATURES & ANALYSIS

So long, farewell
There’s no sugar coating it: This was the worst year ever for lawyer headcount.

Drop Zone
Tough times hit law firms from a variety of regions, sizes and practice types.

Future Shock
How will the NLJ 250 look a decade from now?

Weak partner growth, while ‘others’ disappear
Associate cuts made history this year, but results for partners and other attorneys show upheaval within those ranks as well.

Big Firms Slashed Headcount At International Offices
Losses in international offices accounted for a large part of overall decline in law firm headcounts.

BY THE NUMBERS

The NLJ 250
Our annual ranking of the nation’s largest law firms.

Here and There
A look at the NLJ 250′s branch offices: Where are the lawyers?

Biggest Gainers, Steepest Declines
Firms that added the most lawyers to their ranks and those that took the biggest losses.

Hello, Goodbye
Firms new to the NLJ 250 and firms that dropped off our list — in some cases, shutting their doors for good.

The List, A-Z
An alphabetical listing of firms on the NLJ 250.

Methodology
How we compiled the data.

REGIONAL ANALYSIS

Headcount Declined Sharply in New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia
The closure of several long-standing law firms accounted for wide regional fluctuations.

Most D.C. Firms Not Immune to Downturn
Of the 17 firms with primary offices in Washington, 10 posted drops in their overall headcount.

California Firms Follow National Trend
Latham & Watkins and Paul Hastings each lost about a fifth of their lawyers in the course of a year.