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Firms are signing on increasing numbers of corporate associates, leading recruiters to call the past six months the most optimistic hiring stretch since 1999. “Hiring is up 60 percent over this time last year,” said Robert Major Jr., a partner at legal search firm Major, Hagen & Africa. “Demands [for associates] are accelerating. You can start to hear the stress in our clients’ voices, which is always nice to hear. It’s music to their ears as well.” When the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, firms mowed their ranks. After years of frenzied hiring, recruitment has all but frozen for the past three years. Transactional associates — corporate and licensing — were particularly hard hit. But beginning late last year, firms cautiously began refilling many of those spots as IPOs and M&A deals picked up again in the Valley. Major said demand for associates follows a camel-hump pattern, with fewer requests for the most junior and senior levels and more for mid-levels. Silicon Valley-based Pillsbury Winthrop partner Ondine “Lior” Nuchi said his firm is among those putting out the “help wanted” sign. “We’re looking for several [associates] in the Valley — some in corporate, some in licensing. We haven’t been looking to hire in those groups in a long time. If you asked me three months ago, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Nuchi said. Pillsbury already hired two associates this month — a third-year and a fourth-year — and will continue to recruit junior to mid-level associates, Nuchi added. “At first we were looking at people to increase our business, associates who really fit into where we wanted to build our practice. Now we’re looking for people to do the work that we’ve got,” he said. San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster partner Robert Townsend said his firm is searching for at least 10 corporate associates to handle work demands in its Bay Area, Southern California and New York offices. Fenwick & West is also recruiting junior to mid-level corporate associates for a few slots in the Bay Area, according to Silicon Valley-based partner Jeffrey Vetter. The lower levels are thin, he said, because recent law school graduates have veered away from corporate work. “We saw a lot less interest in corporate work from law students in campus interviews, even in the summer program. Everybody wanted to be a litigator, particularly an IP litigator,” Vetter said. Summer associate classes, traditionally a way to train and recruit large numbers of associates, are smaller than they were during the dot-com heyday, Major said. “Rather than, say, 30, firms will stick to 20 summer associates, and if the economy pace quickens substantially, they can stock higher in areas they need such as securitization or real estate finance.” Major said most firms, still smarting from the layoffs of years past, are cautious not to overhire. Cooley Godward, for instance, had to lay off scads of corporate associates after the local economy tanked. The shop is now seeking associates, but at a much more measured pace. Cooley began efforts to retain current corporate associates early this year by raising its mid- and upper-tier associates’ salaries — boosting fourth-year pay to $165,000, from $150,000, for instance — bringing them in line with their peers in the Valley. But no one expects a bidding war for associates just yet. Said Pillsbury’s Nuchi, “We’re not finding it too difficult to recruit.”

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