Nicole Alexander
Nicole Alexander ()

First-year associate hiring is increasing at the biggest law firms across the country, NALP has reported, but the trend has yet to manifest itself at many of New Jersey’s largest firms and branches.

The June 19 report said that firms with 500 or more attorneys accounted for 20.6 percent of firm jobs taken by law school class of 2013 graduates—compared with 19.1 percent for 2012 grads and 16.2 percent for 2011 grads.

And the 4,000 jobs landed at those firms represented a 9 percent spike over the prior year’s class, though still a far cry from the 5,100 jobs taken by the class of 2009.

“It’s a little off from what I’ve heard is happening in the state,” said Nicole Alexander, director of professional and business development at Morristown’s McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter. “I hope [New Jersey] starts following the trend.”

McElroy Deutsch, the state’s second-largest homegrown firm by head count, is bringing in a sizeable fall class—14 new associates, all but two of them in New Jersey—but that’s common practice for the actively recruiting firm, Alexander said.

Meanwhile, Alexander is still receiving numerous unsolicited resumes each week from job seekers who are finishing up clerkships and have no place to land, she said.

“And these are very talented candidates,” Alexander added. “It’s disheartening because you want to see these candidates placed at great firms.”

McCarter & English of Newark, New Jersey’s most populous firm, has hired only a “handful of extraordinary candidates” right out of law school and “gotten away from hiring a batch of new associates” over the last six or seven years, said managing partner Stephen Vajtay Jr.

“We’ve been hiring on an as-needed basis,” and first-years, just like laterals, are brought in only in areas of need, regardless of pedigree, Vajtay said. “We don’t anticipate straying from that practice this fall.”

“In the absence of robust growth and demand … there [is] no financial basis for staffing up,” he added. “Most clients have said they don’t want to pay for training of young associates.”

Fox Rothschild—which is based in Philadelphia but has 161 lawyers at branches in Atlantic City, Morristown, Princeton and Roseland—“has always had a conservative approach to hiring, at least at the entry level,” said Jean Durling, the firm’s chief talent officer and NALP’s president-elect.

The firm is expecting 11 or 12 hires in the fall—on par with normal class size, Durling said, though she added that this year’s large summer class could yield 15 hires in fall 2015.

“Our numbers have been fairly consistent across the board for many years,” she added.

Mark Silow, the firm’s managing partner, agreed, and said firms likely are hesitant to ramp up recruiting post-recession. “Nobody wants to get ahead of themselves.”

Silow said “the memory of 2008, 2009, 2010 are too fresh”—that’s when firms withdrew or deferred offers, and took other drastic measures.

“That was very painful for a lot of firms,” he added. “I’m sure nobody wants to repeat that. I’m sure a lot of people are saying, ‘prove it.’”

Archer & Greiner, New Jersey’s fifth-largest firm, is slated to make at least two associate hires this fall after making either three or four new associate hires in each of the last four years, according to firm spokesman Bill Shralow.

Ward Bower, a consultant in Altman Weil Inc.’s Newtown Square, Pa., office, said, with hiring trends, “usually there’s a time lag” of one to two years between large firms in large cities and other firms.

“The fact of the matter is, the firms in New Jersey are in direct competition with the firms in Philly and New York”—much like the rest of Pennsylvania fights for recruits that go to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh firms.

Bower agreed that confidence at firms smaller than 500 attorneys is keeping first-year hiring levels stagnant, and added that there are likely three or four classes’ worth of lawyers who are either unemployed, underemployed or working in non-law jobs.

“It might be a lost generation of lawyers when it comes to employment opportunities,” he said.

A Law Journal survey last October found that firms were mostly hiring associates with some form of experience. In the 2013 hiring year, laterals and former clerks accounted for 71.4 percent of the top 24 firms’ hires, while only 28.6 percent (60 associates) were hired out of law school.

Total head count at New Jersey’s largest firms has declined somewhat. Of the six largest, only one—Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland—had a net gain of lawyers last year, according to another Law Journal survey, while a third found that summer associate hiring in the state has hit a new low.

Head count has dwindled even at smaller New Jersey firms.

Of the dozen New Jersey firms appearing in the National Law Journal 350—a survey by an affiliate publication that ranks firms based on head count in the previous calendar year—all but two got leaner, and all but one lost ground in the rankings.

Average head count change was a negative 2.9 percent among those firms, which lost 8.4 spots in the rankings on average.

Contact the reporter at dgialanella@alm.com.