William Krais
William Krais ()

Summer hiring at New Jersey firms and branches, which plateaued at well below prerecession rates in recent years, now has hit a new low.

Fewer firms are running summer associate programs, and the hangers-on are bringing aboard leaner classes, according to a Law Journal survey of firms that have been historically active. (See the “Summer Hiring at Large N.J. Firms” chart here.)

The 66 associates hired by 17 representative firms are a 20.5 percent decrease from the 83 hires made last summer, and a 32.7 percent drop from 98 hires made in 2012.

During that same period, average hires per firm dwindled from 6.53, to 5.19 to 3.88. And the number of firms with at least three hires slid from 93 percent, to 81 percent to 71 percent.

The 2014 numbers also are far below 2011, when there were 91 total hires, 6.06 associates per firm, and 86 percent of firms had three hires or more.

It all amounts to the bleakest picture yet of summer hiring since the peaks of 2009 and 2010, when the 20 hungriest firms gobbled up more than 140 associates each year—and averaged in excess of seven associates per firm.

Even the sample group shrank, down from the traditional 20 firms. This year only 16 firms brought on summer associates. One usually faithful hirer—Porzio, Bromberg & Newman of Morristown—decided at the end of last summer to suspend the program and didn’t conduct any recruiting during the school year.

“It’s just a whole lot easier these days to hire recent law grads or law clerks,” which can be done without spending time and resources on summer recruiting, said William Krais, the hiring partner and a summer associate himself at the firm in 1990. “We’re hiring more [graduates] as the needs arise rather than just because it’s the fall.”

Krais said the firm isn’t certain to reinstate the program given the state of supply and demand. One- to five-year associates are “out there in abundance right now,” and even if they aren’t farmed from law school, “you’re getting them young anyway,” Krais added.

Two other firms that made hires last year, Bressler, Amery & Ross of Florham Park and Capehart & Scatchard of Mount Laurel, declined to provide information this year.

Programs at other firms have shrunk in many cases.

Seven of the 17 firms (41.2 percent) have fewer total hires than last year. The biggest drop was at Day Pitney’s Parsippany office, which went from seven hires last year to three this year.

Four others had three fewer hires than last year: Connell Foley of Roseland (three 2014 hires), Genova, Burns, Giantomasi & Webster of Newark (six), Lowenstein Sandler of Roseland (nine), and Porzio (zero).

Eight of the 17 (47.1 percent) had the same number of hires as last year, while just two reported hiring more: Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti of Morristown (five 2014 hires) and Mandelbaum, Salsburg, Lazris & Discenza of West Orange (one). In each case, there was only one more hire than the year before.

The preciousness of those spots isn’t lost on law school students, according to two summer associates at Morristown’s McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter.

“It’s always been very competitive…but the opportunities seem to be fewer and fewer,” said Courtney Johnson, a 2L at Rutgers School of Law-Newark and one of McElroy Deutsch’s eight summer hires.

“Sometimes I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect” when firms conduct on-campus interviews only to make very few or no hires, she added. “You have to take it with a grain of salt.”

Justin Condit, a 2L at Seton Hall University School of Law, said firms seem to be hiring fewer associates but want to be able to make offers to those they bring aboard.

Still, “you don’t feel completely secure,” he said. “You still want to work as hard as possible.”

McElroy Deutsch’s eight hires were second only to Lowenstein Sandler, which brought on nine associates and had the most hires for the third consecutive year.

Those two firms are the most active recruiters, but their 2014 totals pale in comparison to prior years. Lowenstein Sandler had 18 total hires in 2012; McElroy Deutsch, 19 in 2011. In 2008, each firm had 22 summer hires.

Both, however, have said that summer hiring at their out-of-state offices makes up for the drop-off in New Jersey.

Archer & Greiner of Haddonfield had seven hires, the third most, while two firms had six each: Genova Burns and Sills Cummis & Gross of Newark. Riker Danzig had five hires.

Though Genova Burns’ program has not historically been huge, and class size this year is down, the firm has been a steady recruiter in recent years. Though not all associates get job offers later, managing partner Brian Kronick said it’s a good recruiting tool and cutting back by other firms has allowed the firm to pursue candidates “that we otherwise wouldn’t have been in the market for.”

Aside from the New Jersey law schools, Genova Burns has hired summer associates from Columbia Law School, University of Virginia School of Law, University of Michigan Law School and Georgetown Law, he noted.

“We’ve always had plenty of candidates,” Kronick said. “We have to turn people away.”

Jessica Miles, Seton Hall School of Law’s assistant dean for career services, said the overall summer associate market is not as bleak as the Law Journal survey indicates, but “what I’m seeing is a plateau now,” below the summer hiring heydays of years past.

Still, the job offer rate for Seton Hall students who have completed summer programs is upwards of 90 percent, and firms who aren’t ready to commit in the fall are taking advantage of on-campus interviews offered in the spring, she said.

Some firms that can’t justify summer programs have employed alternative recruiting methods. Newark’s McCarter & English, the state’s most populous homegrown firm, hasn’t brought in a summer class since 2009, and as a result avoided associate layoffs later, according to Christine Lydon, a firm attorney and director of professional personnel. In its place, the firm has been hiring law clerks year-round.

“Part of the reason we haven’t brought [the summer program] back is, we sort of stumbled on this being a lot better for us,” because there’s no big advance commitment, Lydon said. “We are trying to keep our talent pipeline flowing. …We don’t want to find ourselves in three years with a gap in the mid-level.”

Lydon said she asks practice group heads at least quarterly about their needs and circulates the most impressive unsolicited résumés she receives—of which there are many.

The firm currently has 10 clerks—there typically are more during the summer—and might carry four to six at other times. They’re paid hourly, from $25 to $30, and work anywhere from 20 to 40 hours per week, Lydon said.

“I can’t think of anyone who’s declined our offer,” Lydon said.

“That might not be a commentary on McCarter,” but rather a commentary on the demand for positions, she added.

For Lowenstein Sandler, summer hiring is still the only way to compete for top talent, said partner Raymond Thek, who heads recruiting efforts.

“There is no alternative for us,” Thek said, noting that the firm has grown by nearly 100 attorneys in the past decade. “We cannot be satisfied by the lateral market. …We have to grow our own.”

“If you think somehow the national firms aren’t going to come in your backyard [to recruit]…you’re kidding yourself.” •

Contact the reporter at dgialanella@alm.com.