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Staff growth at America’s largest law firms slowed in 2008, according to new research, with a host of major firms contracting in the face of the ailing economy.

The National Law Journal‘s 250 survey, a closely-watched annual snapshot of staffing at the US’s largest law firms, shows the group added 4.3% more lawyers over the last 12 months, down on the 5.6% growth in 2007.

The 2007 gains represented the largest increase in lawyer numbers since 2001, when numbers ballooned by 8.2%. In 2006, law firm growth was 4%, while in 2005, it was 4.4%.

DLA Piper held its position at the top of the list, with a total of 3,785 lawyers. It grew by 4.5% in 2008.

The total number of lawyers employed by top 250 firms is 133,723, compared with 128,213 at the same point last year.

However, law firms’ expansion has been tempered by an economic slump that included bank failures, rollercoaster oil prices, an erratic stock market and a $700bn (£444bn) Government bailout to resuscitate the credit market.

Also lagging notably behind 2007′s results were partner totals. This year saw an increase in partners of 3.5%, compared to 2007′s figure of 4.6% and 5.1% in 2006.

Top 250 firms continued to boost their ranks with a large number of non-equity partners in 2008. Among the 221 law firms that provided equity and non-equity partner breakdowns, the average number of non-equity partners – 60.4 – represented a 9.4% increase compared with 2007, when the average of number of non-equity partners was 55.2.

Although the 4.3% increase in the number of lawyers was a slowdown from last year’s growth, there will be surprise that the level of staff growth is still at 2005 levels despite the rapidly slowing economy.

However, 2008 has seen a significant number of major practices decrease their headcount. Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft – ranked 71st this year from 50th last year – saw a 15.4% decline in headcount from 721 lawyers down to 610.

While the firm’s number of partners increased by two, its number of associates sank to 410 from 501, an 18.2% plunge. Cadwalader was one of a number of US law firms to announce substantial redundancies over the last 12 months with many firms cutting back in the badly-hit structured finance market.

Other major firms to lower their headcount were:

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