The country's largest law firms are wading deeper into the new associate hiring pool — a welcome development after years of recruiting declines.

Law firms of 500 or more lawyers hired more than 3,600 members of the J.D. class of 2012 — a 27 percent increase compared with the previous class — according to figures released on June 20 by NALP, the National Association for Law Placement. Earlier, The National Law Journal's Go-To Law Schools special report found that among the 50 law schools that send the most alumni into large-firm jobs, 25 percent of 2012 graduates landed such jobs, up from 22 percent the year before.

"There was a definite improvement in the number of people who went into the large law firm market in 2012 compared to 2011," said Marcia Shannon, assistant dean for career services at Georgetown University Law Center. "We had about six percent increase in the percentage of graduates in those jobs. We expected it to increase, but not quite that much. We felt like 2011 was really the bottom of the market."

Large-firm hiring and on-campus recruiting at the University of Pennsyl­vania Law School were fairly robust during 2011 and 2012, which associate dean for career planning and professionalism Heather Frattone attributed to increased demand for associates and the school's efforts to turn out graduates with business and management skills.

"I do think that we are in a new normal, where things look better than they did in 2008 but they still aren't as good as the prerecession levels," she said. "Our [on-campus interviewing] this fall was really strong and steady."

Despite the recent gains, there remains a long way to go before large firms come close to acquiring the 5,100 souls they did during the 2009 peak. Plenty of experts remain skeptical that new attorney hiring will ever be that robust again, given the rise of legal-process outsourcing.

OVERALL DECLINE

Large firm hiring was a rare bright spot in NALP's annual entry-level hiring report, however. The overall employment rate for the J.D. class of 2012 fell by 1 percent compared with one year ago, due in part to a large graduating class and fewer law school-funded jobs.

It marked the fifth straight year that the overall employment figure has fallen, according to NALP. On a positive note, the actual number of jobs obtained by graduates was up slightly, as was the median starting salary.

"The employment picture remains decidedly mixed," NALP executive director James Leipold said. "However, with the class of 2012 we see the beginning of a rebounding private practice sector, particularly at large law firms — and, with that, we see some rebounding salary numbers."

NALP's findings backed up data released in March by the American Bar Association, which found that employment rates for new law graduates had fluctuated just slightly from the previous year's numbers. Altogether, nearly 85 percent found some sort of job within nine months of graduation, but less than 60 percent landed permanent, full-time jobs that required bar passage, according to NALP.

The ABA concluded that the overall employment rate was 82 percent and that 56 percent of new graduates were in full-time, permanent jobs that required bar passage. The discrepancy was due in part to the fact that the ABA based its figures on total class size, while NALP counted the number of graduates whose employment status was known.

The national median starting salary for recent graduates was $61,245, up from $60,000 last year. It was the first time since 2008, when the overall median was $72,000, that the figure increased. The national average salary increased from $78,653 to $80,798. NALP's salary figures were based on data reported by 65 percent of graduates.

Both salary increases primarily were due to increased hiring by large law firms. Slightly more than half of the 2012 graduates landed in private practice — about 1 percent more than last year but less than the 55 percent to 58 percent that has been the norm during the 39 years that NALP has been keeping tabs.

Of new graduates who landed law firm jobs, 29 percent said they earned the common large-firm starting salary of $160,000.

NALP attributed the decline in overall employment in part to the fact that law schools were financing fewer jobs for graduates. Only 4 percent of new graduates obtained such jobs, compared with 5 percent of the class of 2011. "That an adjustment was made there is not unexpected," Leipold said. "Some schools were funding jobs at a level that was economically unsustainable over the long haul."

Among those school-funded jobs, 72 percent required bar passage but 47 percent were only part-time and 62 percent lasted for less than a year.

"Looking ahead, I would expect to see the employment picture for the class of 2013 continue to improve, although that is another very large graduating class and that will take a toll on the overall employment rate," Leipold said. "As class sizes come down over time and the legal employment market stabilizes somewhat, I would expect to continue to see modest improvement in the job market in the near and medium-term future."

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.