The nation’s 250 largest law firms are still shaking off the recession’s punch, shedding more than 1,400 lawyers this year and marking the second straight year of a decrease in headcount.

Results from the NLJ 250, The National Law Journal‘s annual ranking of the 250 largest U.S.-based firms by headcount, showed that totals dropped 1.1%. Last year, the headcount fell by 4%.

Taken together, this is the biggest two-year decline in the 33-year history of the survey. In fact, it’s only the second time that the NLJ 250 headcount has dropped in two consecutive years. (The first time, during 1992 and 1993, the number of lawyers fell 1% and 0.9%, respectively.) Much of this year’s decline came in the associate ranks — which fell by nearly 1,000 lawyers.

Although attorney counts slid for a second year in a row, the story could’ve been worse, said Altman Weil consultant Ward Bower. “We’re finally seeing the bottom of the legal recession,” he said.

Indeed, the decline in attorney totals was much smaller this year than last. NLJ 250 firms employed 126,299 lawyers in 2010, compared with 127,701 in 2009. Put another way, the drop of 1,402 is equal to a firm about the size of Kirkland & Ellis. In 2009, the number of lost attorneys was 5,259 — or roughly four Kirklands.

The NLJ 250 ranking was based on the average number of full-time equivalent attorneys for the calendar year 2010, with a projection to Dec. 31. Firms included had their principal or largest office in the United States, but totals include attorneys in foreign offices.

At the top of the list was Baker & McKenzie, with 3,774 attorneys, 175 fewer than last year. Except for 2008, when DLA Piper took the No. 1 position, Baker & McKenzie has held the top spot since the survey’s inception in 1978. The smallest firm on the NLJ 250 this year is Broad and Cassel, with 160 lawyers.

Among other key developments:

BIG FIRMS, BIG DROPS

The declines reached more than half of the firms — 136, though the firms with the biggest drops were at the top of the survey. Of the 50 largest firms, 34 saw headcount decline, and three of them saw a drop of more than 100 lawyers. Besides Baker & McKenzie, also appearing in the 100-fewer-lawyers club were White & Case, by 198, and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, by 109.

DOUBLE-DIGIT DECLINES

Many firms experienced percentage losses well into the double digits. The law firms with the greatest declines were Butzel Long and Fish & Richardson, both with a 17.7% drop. Other firms with big losses were Howrey, by 12.7%; Irell & Manella, by 12.5%; and Adorno & Yoss (now Yoss LLP), by 12.4%.

ON THE WAY UP

Nine firms had headcounts that rose by more than 10%. Ropes & Gray, the only such firm in the top 20, shot up by 21.6%, for the biggest percentage increase among all firms. Associates returning from fellowships and steady lateral recruiting accounted for the increase. Other big gainers were Baker Hostetler, which rose by 12.6%, and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, which climbed by 10.9%. New to the top 10 this year was No. 4 Hogan Lovells, created by the May 1, 2010 merger of Hogan & Hartson and London-based Lovells. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton rose seven spots to break into the top 20 at No. 16. Hiring partner Jorge Juantorena said Cleary’s lack of rigid practice departments has allowed attorneys at the lockstep firm to move where work is needed. The firm has strong litigation and corporate groups. In 2009, it added 61 lawyers. This year, it added 26.

“We tend to have people who straddle the line,” Juantorena said.

AND THE LOSER IS …

Once again, associates took the brunt of the losses. Totals for those attorneys declined by 1.5%. The number of associates working at NLJ 250 firms was 60,782. Associates made up 48% of all attorneys. Law firms brought aboard 5,335 new associates, a number that included deferrals from previous years. The number of law firms that reported hiring first-year associates was 203. The average number of women associates fell by 2, to 110.

PARTNER PATTERNS

Partners were less expendable. The number of those attorneys increased, though barely, again in 2010, this time by 0.6%. Last year, the number of partners rose by 0.9%. The average number of partners at all NLJ 250 firms was 215. In the top 50, the average was 436 and in the top 10 it was 823. The average number of women partners stayed the same, at 41.

IN “OTHER” NEWS

Also rising in 2010 were headcounts in the “other” category, which was composed of nonpartner and nonassociate lawyers, including counsel, of counsel and staff attorneys. This year, the average number of those attorneys was 49, compared with 46 last year. Firms will continue to add more of those types of lawyers, along with contract and temporary attorneys, Bower said. Law firms are unlikely to hire hordes of associates as they had before the 2007 recession any time soon, if ever, he said. “There’s been a reset,” he said.

The biggest lesson that law firms learned in 2010 was that they can do more with less, Bower said. “There are fewer lawyers,” he said, “producing more work and more revenue.”

See the full survey results.

Leigh Jones can be contacted at ljones@alm.com.