New Jersey.
New Jersey. (Photo: Sheldon Kralstein/iStockphoto.com)

Northern New Jersey lies within commuting distance of New York City, but the two areas are worlds apart when it comes to the nation’s largest law firms’ staffing choices.

Among the top 25 U.S. markets, Northern New Jersey’s 9.3 percent headcount slide to 2,285 attorneys—down from 2,519 in 2012—was the steepest last year.

Contrast that with New York, which grew by 1.3 percent to 22,117 lawyers, or more than 15 percent of the NLJ 350 market.

Northern New Jersey ranked as the No. 12 market both years, with 63 NLJ 350 offices in 2013. The NLJ 350 is The National Law Journal’s annual ranking of the nation’s largest law firms by headcount.

The market lost one office when Woodbridge, N.J.-based Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, which had 120 lawyers in 2012, fell off the list. Wilentz declined to comment.

Day Pitney’s woes were also a factor. The firm’s 13.8 percent headcount drop pushed it down 22 slots, to No. 159. The firm, which also declined to comment, has 86 lawyers in Parsippany, N.J.

Managing partner Stanley Twardy Jr. recently said via email that, like other firms, “we continue to reshape our staffing to better align with industry norms and changing client requirements.”

Gibbons of Newark slid seven places, to No. 200, with a 4.3 overall dip in headcount—to 201 from 210. Gibbons has 144 lawyers in Northern New Jersey.

Managing partner Patrick Dunican Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.

McCarter & English, also of Newark, lost two lawyers overall and two places in the rankings, ending at No. 118 with 371 attorneys. About 44 percent, or 165 of its lawyers, work at the firm’s headquarters.

Managing partner Stephen Vajtay Jr. said demand for legal services was flat last year, in Northern New Jersey and across the United States. “I don’t think that’s [unique] to us,” Vatjay said. He added that McCarter, like many firms, has cut back on classes of new lawyers hired straight from law school.

Law firms are looking for ways to reallocate legal work so they can respond to clients’ cost-cutting demands, said Joan Lieberman, a senior director for legal and regulatory services at the New York-based RGP Legal consulting arm of Resources Connection Inc. Lieberman’s practice covers the Connecticut-New Jersey-New York region.

“That may mean consolidations and jettisoning offices that are not profitable. We’re going to probably see more of it, unfortunately,” Lieberman said.

Following Northern New Jersey, economically battered Detroit weathered the next steepest headcount decrease, with a 5.3 percent dip to 1,352 lawyers. Philadelphia followed with a 3 percent decline, to 3,538 lawyers in 2013.

Pittsburgh enjoyed the most growth, with 15.3 percent bump to 1,477 lawyers. Denver followed with an 11.5 percent gain to 1,658 lawyers. Miami rounded out the top three with a 4.1 percent increase to 2,712 lawyers.

The Northern New Jersey market appears to be continuing its downward trajectory. In February, Washington-based Patton Boggs announced that it would close its Newark office. The firm became Squire Patton Boggs this month following the merger with Squire Sanders.

Patton managing partner Edward Newberry has said the firm posted a nearly $12 million loss there last year because insurance work stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks had faded.

Squire Patton spokesman Angelo Kakolyris said the newly merged firm will maintain a presence in New Jersey, but the location isn’t set yet. “We’re trying to look ahead,” Kakolyris said.

Sheri Qualters can be contacted at squalters@alm.com.