(Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ.)

The nation’s largest law firms in 2013 enjoyed their biggest headcount expansion—nearly 4 percent—since the recession, but the picture was much different from the last time firms saw major gains.

Back in 2007, law firm headcount grew by a robust 5.6 percent, and by 2009, amid the recession, lawyer headcount plunged by 4 percent.

In 2013, however, growth was back up to 3.9 percent, but the boost came almost exclusively from foreign mergers. Aside from three key international mergers, which brought a flood of more than 4,400 foreign lawyers into the NLJ 350 equation, the headcount in 2013 increased by just 0.8 percent. Those international mergers created Norton Rose Fulbright and Dentons, and boosted K&L Gates’ size by nearly 15 percent.

For the majority of the firms on the list, 2013 was a year of maintaining status quo—keeping the headcount static while trying to boost revenue.

“Many firms are choosing financial performance over size,” said Kent Zimmermann, a principal at the Zeughauser Group legal consultancy.

That strategy is far different from 2007. That year, associate numbers surged by 5.3 percent, fueled by plenty of document discovery work, which many firms now outsource to legal service providers. Partners tallies in 2007 were up by 4.6 percent.

And while there were mergers back in 2007, the notable ones were domestic (except for Reed Smith’s addition of 250 lawyers from London’s Richards Butler). That year, Day Pitney was formed, as was Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis, now known as K&L Gates. Also created through mergers in 2007 were Dewey & LeBoeuf and Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner, both of which have since closed.

Law has “always been a follow the money game” and firms these days are seeking opportunities in countries and regions that are growing faster than the U.S. economy, Zimmermann said.

Contact Sheri Qualters at squalters@alm.com.