Fewer law students snagged associate jobs at the nation’s largest law firms last summer.
New data from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) shows that firms with more than 700 lawyers scaled back their summer associate classes in 2017—the first decrease since 2012, when large firms started rebuilding the summer associate programs they gutted amid the economic recession.
The average size of the incoming summer associate classes at those large firms last summer was 20, down from 22 in 2016. (Those figures are for each firm office, not the total for each firm.)
“This is a meaningful dip in recruiting at the largest firms,” NALP executive director James Leipold told the law firm recruiters and law school career services personnel assembled in New York Thursday for the the organization’s annual recruiting summit, where he revealed the latest figures. “For the last three or four years, we had this bump in Big Law recruiting as they regrew their summer classes. That has ended.”
It’s looking like last year’s decline in summer associates at the biggest firms will continue into 2018. Those firms extended fewer summer associate offers to incoming second-year law students last fall during the on-campus interview season. The median number of offers fell from 20 in 2016 to 16 in 2017—a 20 percent decrease. The largest number of summer associate offers extended by any firm in 2016 was 565. In 2017, the highest was just 486.
An earlier presentation at the summit by Gretta Rusanow, the head of advisory services at Citi Private Bank’s law firms group, offered several possible explanations for the slowdown in summer associate hiring: demand for law firm services has generally remained flat in recent years, with revenue increases coming primarily from rising billing rates. And 88 percent of the law firm leaders recently surveyed by Citi said clients are unwilling to pay for young associates, causing some firms to reduce their rates or simply not charge clients for their work.
Rusanow also noted that some of the work traditionally handled by associates is being shifted to other job categories, including of counsel, non-equity partners, and temporary attorneys.
“The industry has moved away from its dependence on associates,” she said.
The move to $180,000 starting associate salaries at many of the country’s largest firms in 2016 could also be a factor in the recent summer associate recruiting slowdown, given that each associate hire now costs firms an additional $20,000 in that first year. (Starting salaries at many of the major firms had stagnated at $160,000 for the better part of a decade before the 2016 increase.) The higher associates salaries also put pressure on firms to raise pay for other non-equity partner positions at firms, Rusanow said.
But the decline in summer associates isn’t across the board, NALP found. The average size of 2017 summer programs at all firms was 14—the same as the previous year. The median number of summer associate offers extended last fall by firms of 500 to 700 lawyers decreased modestly from 31.5 to 28, while firms of 250 to 500 lawyers actually increased the median number of offers from 7 to 11.
Overall, 43 percent of firms reported making fewer summer associate offers, while 45 percent reported making more. Another 12 percent said they made no change in the number of offers.
“Some firms have really cut back their summer programs, and some have grown,” Leipold said.