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As head counts at large U.S. firms grew almost 4 percent on average, the most populous New Jersey firms were heading in the other direction.

That’s one takeaway from the recently released National Law Journal 350, a survey by a sibling publication that ranks firms based on head count in the previous calendar year.

Of the dozen New Jersey firms appearing in the NLJ 350, all but two got leaner, and all but one lost ground in the rankings.

Average head count change was a negative 2.9 percent among the N.J. firms, which lost 8.4 spots in the rankings on average.

It’s a stark contrast to the national numbers. The NLJ 350 grew by 3.9 percent on average and added a total of 5,562 lawyers—the biggest gains since 2009. That growth followed just a 1.1 percent increase in head count documented in last year’s survey.

The largest decrease locally was at Day Pitney, which is headquartered in Hartford, Conn., but maintains a large Parsippany office. The firm was created by the merger of Day, Berry & Howard and Pitney Hardin in 2007, at which point its lawyer roster crested at 405.

But in 2013, the head count fell to 275 from 319, a 13.8 percent drop. It ranked 159th, sliding 22 spots from last year’s spot (No. 137).

Managing partner Stanley Twardy Jr. told the NLJ: “Similar to other firms nationwide, we continue to reshape our staffing to better align with industry norms and changing client requirements, and this was the case with the departures last year.”

Connell Foley of Roseland stood out among its New Jersey peers by increasing its ranks to 129 from 121, a 6.6 percent spike. The firm (No. 315) climbed 21 spots from last year’s list, where it ranked 336th. It was the only New Jersey firm to ascend the rankings.

Also bucking the trend was Roseland’s Lowenstein Sandler, which has been the state’s highest-earning homegrown firm, or tied for that distinction, in each of the last three years. Head count increased by 2.8 percent to 261 from 254. Still, the No. 169 ranking represented a two-spot slide.

Here’s how other New Jersey firms stacked up:

• McCarter & English of Newark was the highest-ranked New Jersey firm of the bunch at No. 118. Head count stayed essentially flat—down to 371 from 373, a 0.5 percent decline—and the firm lost two spots in the rankings. Managing partner Stephen Vajtay Jr. has told the Law Journal the firm lost a number of equity partners to “other pursuits” but continued making routine hires.

• McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter of Morristown (No. 162) decreased head count by 4.9 percent, to 274 from 288—its leanest ranks in four years—and slid 12 spots in the rankings (from No. 147). Managing partner Edward Deutsch has attributed the drop to attrition, with aging partners retiring and young associates leaving for family reasons.

• Gibbons of Newark ranked 200th, down from 193rd, after reducing its lawyer ranks to 201 from 210, a 4.3 percent decrease. Hiring rates have slowed at the firm, which managing partner Patrick Dunican Jr. has attributed to lesser demand for legal work.

• Archer & Greiner of Haddonfield (No. 209) reduced its head count to 194 from 208, a 6.7 percent decrease, and slid 10 spots in the rankings (from No. 199). The firm, after expanding rapidly through acquisitions over a three-year period, took retrenchment measures in March 2013, laying off 14 lawyers and 27 staff.

• Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti of Morristown (No. 276) lost 3.3 percent of its lawyers, reducing head count to 146 from 151 and sliding 17 spots in the rankings (from No. 259).

• Sills Cummis & Gross of Newark (No. 293) reduced head count to 140 from 145, a 3.4 percent decrease. Despite the difference of only five lawyers, the firm dropped 24 spots in the NLJ 350, from No. 269 last year. Managing partner R. Max Crane has pointed to attrition and layoffs as the reasons and has said the firm focuses on profitability for equity partners at the expense of head count or revenue growth. “I would rather run a leaner shop and maintain the profitability,” he said.

• Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus of Bridgewater (No. 316) shrunk slightly, to 128 lawyers from 130, a 1.5 percent decrease, and fell seven spots.

• Wolff & Samson of West Orange (No. 326) reduced head count to 125 from 129, a 3.1 percent decrease, and fell eight spots.

• Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard in Hackensack (No. 343) reduced head count to 118 from 121, a 2.5 percent decrease, and fell 11 spots.

Most of the New Jersey firms that lost head count also saw revenue shrink, according to Law Journal‘s most recent annual survey of top-grossing firms, released in late April. But three grew revenue while getting leaner: McCarter & English (5 percent increase), McElroy Deutsch (5.2 percent) and Cole Schotz (6.8 percent).

New Jersey firms fared better in the AmLaw 200 national rankings of highest-grossing firms, released last month. They largely held their ground, though two that have made the list in previous years, Archer & Greiner and Sills Cummis, slid off the board.

Contact the reporter at dgialanella@alm.com.