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If the economy’s sagging, the New Jersey legal economy isn’t showing any signs of it. The market for novice lawyers boomed in the state last year, and a new report by the National Association for Law Placement suggests how big a boom it was. NALP’s annual survey of 21 selected New Jersey firms showed a 12.3 percent increase in the combined hiring of summer interns and first-year associates in 2000. Hiring professionals say the good times will continue. At the mix of large, medium and small partnerships surveyed, first-year hiring rose to 283 in 2000 from 252 in 1999. The increase was more impressive when compared to the 1.2 percent growth in 1999 over the 249 hires in 1998. In 2000, the increase in beginner attorneys and summer associates at the responding firms outpaced participating partnerships in New York City, which had 6.6 percent growth and Philadelphia firms, which had no change, NALP statistics showed. And taking the summer associates out of the mix, the hike was even more dramatic. The number of new full-timers in New Jersey grew by 18.3 percent compared with 7.3 percent in the mid-Atlantic region covering New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, the survey showed. It also exceeded the national average of 12 percent growth in 2000. “It may very well be a factor of the number of small and medium-sized firms in the New Jersey market,” said Paula Patton, executive director of NALP. In recent years, smaller firms have shown exceptional vitality in hiring because of their efforts to compete, Patton said. Among graduating law students nationally, at least 52 percent last year went to firms with fewer than 100 attorneys, Patton said. “Right now, we’re just continuing to see a very strong market economy,” Patton said. Although the NALP survey is far from comprehensive, the first-year hiring survey did contain reporting from 1,068 law offices around the country, the broadest database of firms available. NALP hasn’t yet released its survey on lateral hiring, so it’s impossible to quantify the assumptions of professionals, like Arlene Sengstack, president of AV Consultants legal recruiting firm in Bridgewater, that the wooing of coveted experienced associates is continuing at a robust pace in New Jersey. Last year’s NALP data show a 12 percent increase from 1998 to 1999 in the hiring of laterals at the New Jersey firms in the survey. “There’s probably been more inclination to hire people that have some experience,” Sengstack said. The movement among lawyers last year may have been propelled partly by the higher salaries that many firms offered, she said. Although economic observers have warned of a recession, Sengstack said that she has seen no indications that law firms are being affected by a slowdown. Hiring at three of New Jersey’s largest firms illustrates the trends identified in the past two years of NALP surveys. Roseland, N.J.’s Lowenstein Sandler, which experienced dramatic growth last year, hired twice as many lateral attorneys as novices. That’s because, of the nearly 60 attorneys hired in 2000, 21 were bankruptcy practitioners swooped up from Roseland’s defunct Ravin, Sarasohn, Cook, Baumgarten, Fisch & Rosen. The bottom line after attrition: The firm had 145 lawyers in 1999 and expects to employ 195 by March, said hiring partner Joseph Steinberg. Lowenstein Sandler’s new bankruptcy group is poised to handle cases expected to flow from any recession, Steinberg said. The group went from one bankruptcy attorney to an entire department anticipating that there would be an economic lull that would make the practice thrive. The firm also added lawyers in construction, patent law and products liability, Steinberg said. “We felt that the way of the future, in New Jersey at least, is you’re either going to get bigger and in effect offer your clients everything that they need or you’re going to get gobbled up or you’re going to disappear,” Steinberg said. New Jersey’s largest firm, McCarter & English, experienced lower attrition rates last year — about one departing lawyer a month compared with up to three per month previously — partly because it boosted pay at all levels, said hiring partner Rick Beran. The Newark-based firm hired nearly twice as many lateral attorneys than first-years last year, 30 and 18 respectively, Beran said. Lawyers were brought in particular in litigation and corporate practice and to expand McCarter & English’s New York office, he said. The firm is now up to 261 lawyers and Beran said, “We’re seeking to expand geographically; I don’t really think we’re going to be ratcheting down hiring at all.” Although Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer hired only five new associates last year, compared to eight in 1999, the Woodbridge, N.J., firm did bolster its commercial real estate, construction and commercial litigation practices, adding 16 lateral attorneys, five entry-level lawyers and two post-clerkship, said Kimberly Curtis, director of legal services.

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