With all indications pointing to a tepid-at-best job market for 2012 law graduates, Knobbe Martens Olsen & Bear is a hot spot.

The Irvine-based intellectual property law firm recently hired 30 entry-level associates from the class of 2012 — an especially high number considering the midsize firm totals 265 attorneys.

Managing partner Steven Nataupsky attributed the number mainly to high demand from clients pursuing applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Most of the new hires will work on patent prosecution, as opposed to the firm’s patent litigation side, he said.

“It’s just a direct result of so many clients emerging from the dark days of the recession,” Nataupsky said.

The new associates represent 11.3 percent of all of Knobbe’s attorneys, based on the data it reported for the 2012 NLJ 250 survey. Last year, the firm hired about the same number—34 first-year associates, or 12.8 percent of its attorney totals. The NLJ 250 is Recorder sibling publication The National Law Journal’s annual ranking of the nation’s largest law firms by headcount.

Knobbe’s hiring percentages top some of the most prestigious law firms in the country. For example, first-year hires from the class of 2012 at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom totaled 106 associates, according a firm spokeswoman—about 6 percent of its overall attorney headcount. Chicago-based Kirkland & Ellis hired 155 law graduates from the class of 2012, representing 10.7 percent of its total attorneys.

Another IP firm, Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, also showed respectable first-year hiring. The Washington-based firm with 371 attorneys brought aboard 30 first-year associates, said managing partner Barbara McCurdy. That’s 8 percent of its attorney total.

More than client demand is driving the associate numbers at Knobbe, where they have remained steady for the last three years. It’s essentially a lockstep shop, paying attorneys based on years of experience—a system that can scare off potential laterals, especially litigators, who are accustomed to merit pay.

To stay competitive by having enough lawyer talent, the firm’s strategy is to grow organically rather than hire lateral partners, Nataupsky said.

“Our value system is different,” he said.

The firm requires associates to bill about 1,600 hours per year, Nataupsky said, compared with 2,000 or more at full-service firms. And as a general rule, associates make partner after six years—less time than at other top firms.

As a trade-off, incoming associates, many of whom hold advanced degrees in science and technology, make $150,000 annually, a notch below the going rate of $160,000 at many major firms.

Overall, the job market continues to be unfavorable for recent graduates, although it’s too early to know exactly how the class of 2012 is faring. For the class of 2011—the latest data available from NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement—employment rates hit an 18-year low. Nine months after graduation, 85.6 percent of the class had secured employment—down by 6 percentage points from the all-time high employment rate of nearly 92 percent in 2007.

Not quite 66 percent of the 2011 graduates were in jobs that required bar membership—down by 9 percent since 2008.

Along with energy practices, jobs in intellectual property—both patent prosecution and litigation—are the best bets for job-seekers, said consultant Kent Zimmermann of the Zeughauser Group.

“The U.S. is the envy of the world when it comes to innovation, which often necessitates protecting IP, and we are also the world’s hellhole litigation jurisdiction,” he said.

Knobbe Martens added 21 associates to its Irvine office, five in San Diego, two in San Francisco and one each in Seattle and Washington.

The ideal job applicant, Nataupsky said, holds an engineering degree from a “good school,” solid law school grades and real-world experience. The ability to communicate is also critical, he said.

“It’s amazing the caliber of applicants coming through,” he said—their credentials exceed his own when he was starting out. “If I sent my resume through the firm, I wouldn’t get looked at.”

Leigh Jones is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate.