The National Law Journal‘s 31st annual survey of the nation’s largest law firms found that hiring slowed significantly in 2008. At this time last year, we reported that overall growth had picked up to levels not seen since 2001. These days, of course, are a different story. The current economic crisis is hitting law firms hard — seven large law firms announced layoffs this year, and the demise of two major firms on the list, Heller Ehrman and Thelen, will affect approximately 1,200 attorneys. It’s not all bad news, at least for some law firms: DLA Piper maintained its spot at the top of the chart and K&L Gates, through a series of successful mergers and lateral hires, has climbed into the top 10 firms.

Growth recedes amid bad economy
Growth at the 250 largest law firms in the country receded this year, likely a reflection of the economic downturn of 2008. The results of our 31st annual survey of the nation’s largest law firms show that they added 4.3% more attorneys this year, compared with 5.6% growth in 2007. Global megafirm DLA Piper held its position at the top of the list, with 3,785 attorneys.

Regional law firms dance the annual on-off shuffle
The annual exchange of law firms that earned or relinquished spots on the NLJ 250 involved 16 shops, with several in the southern and eastern parts of the country staking a claim on the list while others from the Midwest bidding adieu. Most of the law firms disappearing from this year’s NLJ 250 came from the last 50 or so spots on the list, reflecting the typical ups and downs of firm populations. But not typical is this year’s economy, and just how it ultimately may affect law firms on the lower part of the list — those that have about 200 attorneys or fewer — hinges in large part on geography.

Mergers propel K&L Gates to a spot in the top 10
K&L Gates had one of the largest growth spurts among the law firms on this year’s NLJ 250. The firm saw significant increases in several key areas, including the number of new offices and partners, helping it become one of the 10 largest firms for the first time. Colleagues of chairman Peter Kalis credit his communication skills, collaboration with other partners and a clear vision for K&L Gates with helping the firm realize significant growth in recent years through a number of mergers and lateral hires.

Economy delivers gut-punch to some NLJ 250 firms
The credit meltdown of 2008 proved that even the wealthiest law firms are not above the law of supply and demand. At least seven large firms that remain in business announced layoffs that together total more than 200 attorneys this year. Three times as many attorneys were abruptly jobless when Heller Ehrman dissolved entirely. And late last month, Thelen, which had 600 attorneys in 2007, announced it too would disband.


The Chart: The 2008 NLJ 250
The National Law Journal‘s 31th annual survey of the nation’s 250 largest law firms, covering the period from Oct. 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2008. Eligibility is based on a firm’s total number of attorneys, not including contract or temporary attorneys. The cutoff point this year is 174. A firm must have more lawyers based in the United States than in any other single country. The city listed under the firm name is the firm’s principal or largest office. We’ve also included the starting salaries for first-year associates.

How we determine the ranking of the NLJ 250 firms, including information about the process, the criteria and the definitions in our survey.

Directory of NLJ 250 branch offices
Lists by firm the total number of attorneys in each city where the firm has offices.

Index of firms listed
Alphabetical listing of firms with ranking.