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Job prospects are finally improving for young attorneys in search of first-year associate positions. According to data collected by the National Association for Law Placement, a slowdown in entry-level hiring at firms of all sizes and in all regions of the country seems to have ebbed in 2003, with a significant stabilization trend occurring in last year’s recruiting season. By their own internal anecdotal evidence, law firms concur with the numerical findings of the association’s survey. “Things look good for law students,” said T. Robert Zochowski Jr., hiring partner at Shearman & Sterling. “It’s not as frothy as it was in the ’90s, of course, but for students seeking a career in the law — as opposed to investment banking — things have definitely improved.” James Castro-Blanco of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson agreed, citing general business improvement at his firm — including a pickup in corporate practice, an area that shrunk measurably at most firms due largely to the national economic downturn following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. “We’re looking forward to an increasingly robust practice,” said Castro-Blanco, director of associate relations at Fried Frank. “The hiring we’re doing reflects that progress.” Zochowski said campus recruiters for large firms such as his would be looking “deeper into class” at the top-tier law schools, thus expanding opportunities. In addition, he said, recruiters are giving more consideration to graduates of second- and third-tier schools. Nationwide, according to the association’s survey, law firms decreased first-year hiring by 8.4 percent from 2002 to 2003. But during the next cycle, 2003 to 2004, that figure improved to just a 1 percent decline. Hardest hit were law firms in New York City and the rest of the Northeast. Hiring was down in the city by 10.9 percent between 2002 and 2003, the survey revealed, but was down by only 5 percent in the following period. In New York state and New England, the comparable figures were -11.2 percent and -5.4 percent. Law firms in the Midwest and West/Rocky Mountains fared better than most. Midwestern firms stanched the hiring downturn of -9.6 percent between 2002 and 2003, bringing that figure to zero in 2004. At -13.4 percent, the far western states posted the biggest negative hiring rate between 2002 and 2003, due in large measure, the survey details noted, to the economic volatility of the Silicon Valley in northern California. In 2004, the far West’s steep hiring decline was actually reversed, with a positive increase of 6.8 percent — the only plus-side figure reported anywhere in the country during the last two survey cycles. While the association’s latest survey did not deal with hiring trends according to practice area, Zochowski made two predictions. “You may see newer practice areas emerging, such as white-collar advisory practice,” he said. “And there is a good market now for careers as in-house counsel.”

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