As corporate and real estate work began to dry up during the recession, many young associates were forced to turn their attention to other practice areas, leaving a dearth of young transactional lawyers now that firms are looking to hire them again, according to firm leaders and legal recruiters.

“We just went through a search to hire somebody and it was difficult to find a candidate,” said Maury B. Reiter, managing principal of Blue Bell-based Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein.

The problem, Reiter said, is that when the economy took a nosedive beginning in 2008, large law firms found themselves with a glut of young associates in their sluggish transactional practices.

The firms responded by moving many of those associates to other, busier practices and by either significantly reducing or completely halting associate hiring, according to Reiter.

Now, as Reiter’s firm sees corporate work starting to pick up and once again finds itself in need of associates in those practices, the result is a noticeable lack of young lawyers with transactional experience from which to choose.

“They stopped making them in 2008 and all the ones who were doing that type of work in 2008 transitioned into something else I guess,” Reiter said.

According to Reiter, his firm is now forced to train young associates “from scratch, which is always a challenge because we’re not geared toward having extra time in our schedules.”

The upside, however, is that as corporate work rebounds, the void in experienced corporate associates should begin to fill in again “fairly quickly,” Reiter said.

“It’s like anything else,” he said. “I think people steered away and now they’re going to go back into it.”

Reiter noted that large firms are likely finding themselves having to rebuild their corporate practices after dispersing their associates elsewhere over the past few years.

Mark L. Silow, firmwide managing partner of Fox Rothschild, said his firm never stopped hiring associates to its corporate practice but did taper off its real estate associate hiring during the recession.

“With the downturn in real estate in 2008, we held off on filling entry-level positions in real estate,” Silow said, but added that the firm is now seeing real estate work “come back nicely” and is looking to once again build up its associate ranks in that practice.

Silow said this year will mark the first time in four or five years that Fox Rothschild has brought aboard a first-year associate to its real estate practice.

According to Silow, it’s still a “buyer’s market” for firms looking to hire and train quality entry-level associates.

But for those associates who temporarily transitioned from corporate or real estate into another practice area such as litigation or bankruptcy or went to work in an entirely different field in 2008 or 2009, current law firm openings don’t necessarily translate into job openings, recruiters have noted.

Maura McAnney of McAnney Esposito & Kraybill Associates in Pittsburgh said the rapid change in the law and in business gives a significant leg up to associates who are fully up to speed on the current status of the law in a certain practice area. Firms want associates who can hit the ground running, she said.

“You lose your marketability after a time,” said Frank D’Amore of Attorney Career Catalysts in Haverford, Pa.

He has had requests from firms to fill acute needs in the corporate arena and the pool of talent from which to draw is just not as deep, D’Amore said. The other issue is that corporate associates who survived the recession are much more hesitant to switch firms out of a sense of loyalty to their current firm for sticking with them, he said.

Pittsburgh-based Lori Carpenter of Carpenter Legal Search said she thinks this problem of a lack of associates will only grow in the next year or so because there were a few classes of graduates that either went on to clerk or into public interest work, deepening even further the dearth of corporate lawyers in the market.

Firms looking for a fourth- or fifth-year associate to fill a specific client need may have trouble filling that spot because more senior lawyers wouldn’t want to do that level of work and there aren’t enough lawyers at the necessary level.

“Both sides need to be more open-minded,” Carpenter suggested as one solution to this problem. “It’s sort of a brave new world.”

Firms need to be more flexible about candidates at a particular level and candidates need to be more open-minded to the type of work they are willing to do.

For some firms, the solution is to just start fresh with hiring more first-years and placing them in corporate practices.

As is mentioned in more detail in the First-Year Associates supplement in today’s Legal, Saul Ewing increased its first-year associate class and its starting salary in 2012 in an effort to meet demand as well as fill the firm’s pipeline of associates.

After not holding a summer program in 2010, Saul Ewing only had one first-year associate firmwide in 2011 and has nine first-year associates joining the firm this year.

Saul Ewing hiring partner Erik Williams said the firm is seeing an increase in demand across all of its departments, including corporate. But the growth in its first-year class was also related to a perceived need to have more junior attorneys at the firm.

“We’ve been committed for years to our summer program and growing from the ground up. And when in 2010 we had no summer class, leading to no starting first-years in 2011, when you have that gap, all of a sudden you need to backfill to get your associate numbers and keep your balance throughout the firm,” Williams said.

Not hiring corporate lawyers four or so years ago has created a gap in training, Williams said, adding that firms have more senior associates and no junior associates in certain practices.

“So in order to appropriately staff various matters and have lower-rate, more junior attorneys to do certain aspects of assignments, you need to continue to hire at that level and continue to train,” Williams said.

Carpenter said Saul Ewing’s approach to hire and train its own associates now in anticipation of a future uptick is “smart business.”

Cozen O’Connor has increased its first-year associate class from 13 associates in 2011 to 20 this year. But the firm isn’t increasing hiring to fill a gap, as it never stopped hiring real estate and corporate associates over the past few years, Cozen President Michael Heller said.

But given the slowdown in hiring in those practices a few years ago, Heller said he can see how some firms would be looking to beef up those practices now. While it never completely slowed down during the recession, Heller said the firm’s real estate practice has seen a “meaningful” uptick in work over the last year.

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI.

Gina Passarella can be contacted at 215-557-2494 or at gpassarella@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI.