Like their bigger competitors, midsize law firms have hired fewer associates since the recession. Still, hard times have proven a boon in one sense: They can hire from a rather more prestigious applicant pool than they could have in the past.

Graduates from Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, Stanford Law School and Columbia Law School have fanned out their employment searches in the tight job market, and many firms with 100 to 200 lawyers are welcoming associates who might have passed them over in better economic times.

"There’s a filtering-down process, but law students also see an advantage with midsize firms," said David Wilkins, a Harvard professor whose scholarship focuses on the legal profession. Even without the decrease in associate demand industrywide, graduates increasingly view midsize firms as offering better access to interesting legal work and a closer-knit culture, he said.

"They’re looking at something they haven’t looked at before, and they see the advantages," Wilkins said.

The sweatshop reputation that the largest firms have suffered, perhaps exaggerated in some cases and deserved in others, has not gone unnoticed by their leaders. Many large law firms have made significant efforts to improve work cultures and increase mentoring opportunities for new associates.

But the business structure of large law firms still dictates that associates do much of the commodity or discovery grunt work — unless those firms avoid hiring new associates altogether by offloading such tasks to third-party legal services providers. Midsize law firms, then, have an advantage in the kind of experience they can offer to new attorneys, Wilkins said.

"Medium-sized firms have a very strong value proposition to the client market and the labor market," he said.

Hartford, Conn.-based Shipman & Goodwin, with 145 lawyers, recruited from Yale and George Washington University Law School, among other strong schools, last year. Edward Parks, a partner in Shipman & Goodwin’s Washington office, said that high-profile layoffs at large law firms have helped his firm’s recruiting efforts, particularly in Washington, where it has more competition from large rivals.

"Law students are getting more sophisticated," Parks said, and skittish about the "churn ‘em and burn ‘em approach" at large law firms.

First-year associate pay at Shipman & Goodwin is competitive with the salary that many big firms are paying, Parks said. Those salaries ranged from $145,000 to $160,000. Associate hiring at law firms of all sizes plunged dramatically following the 2008 recession, according to NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement, which tracks the associate hiring trends by firm size using summer hiring data. In 2007, the average number of summer associates at law firms with 101 to 250 attorneys was 17. In 2008, that number slid to 12. A year later, those law firms hired just six summer associates. In 2010, the number was back up to nine, but fell to eight in 2011 and seven in 2012.

Although lackluster, those numbers were more or less in the same ballpark as those for law firms with 701 or more attorneys. In 2007, those firms on average hired 30 summer associates, a number that sank to eight during the depths of the recession and has climbed back to just 12, according to NALP.

The slow recovery at large firms means that "absolutely the pool of applicants is better" at midsize firms, said James Leipold, executive director of NALP. He added, however, that recruiting graduates from "the very top" schools remains highly competitive.

Some of the more notable first-year hires at midsize law firms included those at Wilmington, Del.-based Richards, Layton & Finger, which has 131 lawyers. It recruited from Harvard, George Washington and the University of Virginia School of Law, among others. Varnum, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., snagged graduates from University of Michigan Law School, Northwestern University School of Law and the University of Notre Dame Law School to fill some of its first-year slots. Los Angeles-based Nossaman, with 142 lawyers, brought aboard graduates from University of California, Berkeley School of Law and University of California at Los Angeles School of Law for its first-year class.

Harvard graduate Alexander Burk­hardt concluded that Richards Layton offered the right combination when he was looking for a job. He was interested in practicing corporate law, so Delaware made sense, and he wanted to avoid the expense and crowds of big-city living. The starting salary was comparable with what the big firms were paying, he said, while the cost of living was lower than in New York and other large cities. But that wasn’t all.

"I wanted to work in an environment where I could have a lot of face time with the most important directors or partners in the firm," Burkhardt said. "I wanted to be working with them as opposed to being a cog in a machine." When he met with Richards Layton partners during Harvard’s on-campus interview session, Burkhardt said, it all came together. "They provided me with an easy choice."

The capital markets and financial services work that the New York-based Seward & Kissel handles is a big selling point at recruitment time, said Royce Akiva, director of recruiting at the 170-attorney firm. Offering salaries comparable with big firms and 401(k) benefits to associates doesn’t hurt either, she said. The firm, which also serves corporate and litigation clients, usually hires about 10 first-year associates each year. Akiva said the firm has a reputation for providing rewarding work experience and a collaborative culture.

"Our selling of our firm [to applicants] is not based on what we can offer them [on the presumption that] they couldn’t get into a big law firm," Akiva said. "It’s just a wholly different experience."

Last year, Seward & Kissel hired some first-year associates from Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsyl­vania Law School. "We do very well," Akiva said, referring to the firm’s associate hiring success. "Word gets out."

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