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Next year marks the 30th anniversary of Legal Times, and browsing through back issues from the paper’s inaugural year makes for some interesting reading. For example, one short article from June 1978 appears to be the earliest precursor to the LT 150 survey. Titled “Existing D.C. Firms Growing at Rapid Rate,” the piece surveys two dozen area firms and charts their “dramatic growth” over the preceding five years. At the top of the list sits Covington & Burling (which appears on this year’s chart at No. 3 � still on top after all these years). The firm, the piece notes, was poised to cross the 200-lawyer mark that year. Another chart-topper was then-85-lawyer Howrey & Simon, which said it expected to hire 30 associates in 1978. That’s exactly the same number of associates the firm brought in for 2007. Of course, hiring good talent was a little cheaper back then. First-year associate pay, though “rising markedly,” still topped out at $25,000. In all, the survey noted, 24 firms had 33 or more lawyers in their D.C. offices. Today, a 33-lawyer D.C. office would just squeak you into the survey, tying for 139th place with Staas & Halsey and five other firms. As for $25,000, that wouldn’t get you a temp to answer the phone out front. But in some ways the current D.C. legal market hearkens back to the one three decades ago: Firms are expanding rapidly to embrace opportunities presented by a seismic shift in the business. Back then the first traces of a national footprint could be seen. Today, the game is global, and Washington has become just another power point on that grid. Among the strongest trends, reconfirmed in this year’s survey numbers, is the continued penetration of national and international firms into D.C. In 2000, only one of the top 10 D.C. firms was a branch office of an out-of-town firm. In 2007, three of the top 10 firms and more than half of the top 30 owe an allegiance to a home office based somewhere else. The prevalence of out-of-town firms is particularly noticeable in D.C.’s second tier. Of the 16 firms ranked from 20 to 35, all but two are branch offices. Of course, turnabout is fair play. Some top D.C. firms, led by Hogan & Hartson and WilmerHale, have planted their flags in other jurisdictions. But for those whose primary revenue source remains the District, the continued rise in Washington of firms like Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom (ranked 15th in the year 2000, up to 4th in 2007), and Latham & Watkins (26th in 2000; 6th today) should be troubling to home-grown firms. Whereas in the past large out-of-town firms could be courted as allies of sorts � big-market patrons who often were in need of D.C. expertise on behalf of their clients � today they are looking to cut out the middlemen and keep all the Washington work for their own accounts. BOUNCE BACK? Associate hiring is always a leading indicator that observers of the legal market look to as a sign of firm confidence. But this year there seems to be a split. As we detail elsewhere in the section (See “Hot Hiring; Softer Market” on Page 1), firms insist that they are hiring based only on projected need but, at the same time, show a marked nervousness about a softening legal market. It’s as if a man worried about losing his high-paying job went out and splurged on a new Land Rover to drive to work. Both are cases of buying an expensive means to accomplish something you may very soon not need to do � but still be stuck making payments on long after its utility has vanished. The issue is hardly academic. The second half of 2007 has seen a slowdown in a variety of transactional work due to the deepening debt crisis, as well as continued decline in mass tort litigation, a business that fueled the need for foot soldiers at big D.C. firms for many years. Despite this the top five D.C. firms have substantially kicked up associate hiring in 2007, collectively adding about 280 associates to their D.C. rosters. Two firms doing some of the most aggressive hiring are Washington mainstays Covington and Arnold & Porter (ranked 4th this year, down one spot from 2006). A&P’s 70-plus associate hires this year represents about 20 percent of the firm’s total 2007 head count. As Legal Times has questioned the future robustness of both firms recently, it’s only fair to mention that they are among the most aggressive growers in this year’s survey. Not all the top D.C. firms are making such bullish moves. Both Howrey (ranked 6th, up from 12th last year) and Dickstein Shapiro (ranked 8th, down one place from last year) are keeping associate hiring at more modest levels. Williams & Connolly (ranked 17th, up from 21st a year ago) is easing off its hiring a bit as well, picking up 25 associates this year, down from 35 over the same period last year. Despite the growth over the past years and decades, there is one area where firms continue to struggle for growth: the hiring of minority lawyers. Hogan, one of the most respected firms in Washington, reports 229 partners in this year’s survey, only 12 of whom are minorities. Latham & Watkins has shown perhaps the most impressive growth of any law firm in the nation during the past decade and is turning itself into an inside-the-Beltway force. But of the 78 partners in its D.C. office for 2007, only three are minorities. WilmerHale prides itself on transforming itself from a regional player into a global power, and is the biggest firm in town for the third straight year. But of its 126 D.C. partners, only 13 are members of an ethnic minority. The story for female and minority associates is far more hopeful. In general, the firms mentioned above and others do a much better job at recruiting minority associates than they do in finding minority candidates for partnership. And, to be fair, the record of D.C. firms on hiring minority partners isn’t any worse than that of most other big firms. But in a city that has one of the highest minority populations and the highest concentration of lawyers in the country, isn’t it reasonable to ask why things haven’t gotten any better? So much has changed for D.C. firms in the 30 years since Legal Times began tracking the kinds of numbers that appear in the stories and charts on the pages that follow. But one thing seems clear: If the D.C. legal practice wants the next 30 years to be as productive and profitable as the past 30, it will need to find some way to expand its reach other than just geographically.
Douglas McCollam can be contacted at [email protected].

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