Q: I’m a law firm associate and want to move to another firm. Is there a best hiring cycle in this market?
A: Generally speaking, lateral associate hiring follows some defined annual cycles, but there is sporadic noncyclical activity as well.
As part of their hiring protocol, law firms conduct OCIs (on campus interviews) to find top talent for their summer programs. These programs serve as feeders for the first year associate classes. When permanent offers are extended, the summers who accept begin their employment as “first years” in September/October. So needs are satisfied at the very junior ranks and lateral associate hiring during this time is sparse.
As the New Year arrives, new budgets are created and inventory is taken regarding the most active practices in the firm and the support requested by the partners. New hiring needs are discussed and agreed to internally—and the recruiting process begins to the fill open reqs. So much of the associate hiring activity occurs in Q1 and the first part of Q2.
With this said, law firms are notoriously hyper-reactive to the economy and current work activity. When times are tough, a clinical sweep of layoffs typically ensues. When the economy picks up, firms find themselves understaffed and associate hiring picks back up. In addition, if big litigation matters, IPOs, cross border or M&A deals, etc. are brought in, firms will often to hire associates to support the new work. This reactivity increases hiring activity at different times of the year—often outside of the typical hiring cycles.
Finally, with the flurry of associate departures to the world of in-house (a sector with steadier hiring activity), law firms are facing a revolving door at the three-to-seven year associate seniority level throughout the year. This dynamic contributes to “off cycle” hiring, but unlike in-house replacement searches, law firms do not follow a 1:1 replacement protocol. They take careful inventory of current work activity to determine whether an associate replacement search is necessary. Sometimes it is, but more often than not firms will hold off on a replacement search until the need becomes pressing or until Q1 when new budgets are set.
The rise of the in-house legal department has had a major effect on the legal profession … and has acted like a slow closing vice on law firms over the past 15-plus years. One consequence of this evolution is lighter associate demand and more reactive hiring. The traditional hiring cycles still exist and will continue for the near future. But the legal profession is still evolving and the law firms are still trying to find the perfect formula to thrive in this new world. As they get closer, the way they operate could change significantly—and may change how associate hiring is conducted altogether. Stay tuned … .
Julie Brush is the founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer (www.thelawyerwhisperer.com), a career advice column for legal professionals, also found on LinkedIn. She is co-founder of Solutus Legal Search, a legal search/consulting boutique firm, serving as a strategic adviser to lawyers, law firms and corporations.