National Association for Law Placement executive director James Leipold
National Association for Law Placement executive director James Leipold (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

Last year brought evidence that hiring activity at law firms was slowly improving, although not returning to prerecession levels, according to data from NALP, the National Association for Law Placement.

The average summer-associate class size reported by the 400 law firms surveyed by NALP inched up from nine to 11—the highest average since 2009. At the same time, the median summer class size remained at five, leading NALP to conclude that most of the recruiting increase was limited to a few firms running large summer programs.

NALP characterized the slow hiring recovery as “two steps forward, one step back.”

“We have seen some bobbling in recruiting volumes this past fall, with some numbers that point to increased recruiting volumes and some that suggest decreased volume. And in any event, most of the markets that we track have more or less flat-lined for the last several years,” NALP executive director Jim Leipold said.

One clear bright spot is that offers made to summer associates for permanent jobs were almost back to prerecession highs, posting a rate of nearly 92 percent. But, given that summer class sizes are still smaller than before 2008, higher offer rates won’t help overall new associate hiring bounce back to prerecession levels.

The percentage of summer associate interviews that resulted in job offers also ticked up in 2013, to 47 percent from 44 percent in 2012. Still, that ran far below the 63 percent mark set in 2006.

Many law firm recruiters told NALP that despite the difficult entry-level job market, they felt they were fiercely competing with other firms for the same small cohort of desirable summer-associate hires.

“At the end of 2013, the sense in the market seemed to be continued flat to declining volume in demand for legal services, with continued downward pressure on the costs for providing those services and a realization rate that continues to slip,” Leipold said. “There have also been predictions that there will be further stratification in the market, so one thing we may be seeing in the numbers is that some firms are growing their summer programs while others are reining in class size or leaving it flat.”

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