Texas’ largest firms have hired fewer first-year associates than they did a year ago. But most of those new associates are beginning their jobs this fall — the traditional starting season — rather than facing the three-month or longer deferrals thrust upon 2009′s class of first-years.

For example, in 2009 two large Dallas-based firms, Thompson & Knight and Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell, deferred the start dates of their first-year associates for four months, until January 2010. This year both firms invited their new associates to begin their jobs in September.

VIDEOS: Some big-firm partners offer advice to new associates and recall some of their own early days as new lawyers:

Van Beckwith, hiring partner for the Dallas office of Baker Botts

Dewey Gonsoulin Jr., partner, Bracewell & Giuliani, Houston

Wayne Risoli, managing shareholder of Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin, Houston

Joe Perillo, hiring partner, Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell, Houston

Thompson & Knight has 12 first-year associates in its Texas offices who started on Sept. 27, compared to 16 last year who did not begin work until Jan. 4, 2010.

“We reacted last year like many firms in our market: To match work flow, we delayed start dates,” says Shad E. Sumrow, chairman of the firm’s legal personnel committee. “Our work flow was a little bit slower at that point last year, probably due to the general slowdown in the economy,” he says. “Some clients weren’t quite as busy. We were attempting to match client demand with capacity.”

Thompson & Knight has 307 lawyers in Texas and 366 firmwide. The number of first-year associates declined this year as a result of a smaller summer associate class in 2009, partly driven by the uncertain economy, he says.

This year, the firm has experienced an uptick in business, particularly in the energy sector, so it started its first-year associates in the fall, says Sumrow, a partner in Dallas and New York. “We wanted to get them in the door so they can begin their orientation and start developing their legal skills.

Locke Lord invited its 15 new associates to begin work on Sept. 13. Last year, the firm delayed the start dates for 21 of its 22 first-year associates until Jan. 11, 2010, to ensure there was enough work to keep them busy, says firm hiring partner Joe Perillo of Houston.

“It’s nice to start on the September date and get three months under their belts while they are waiting for the bar [exam] results to come in,” says Perillo. The firm has 385 lawyers in Texas and 637 firmwide.

Most of the first-year associates sat for the Texas bar exam in July and will learn the results in November.

“We want to make sure they get training and acclimated as quickly as possible,” he says.

Why the Change?

The smaller number of first-year associates and an uptick in business are two factors likely responsible for the move back to traditional fall start dates, says management consultant William C. Cobb of Houston.

“Texas law firms are doing pretty darn well now,” he says. Transactions, mergers and acquisitions, and litigation are picking up, he says. “Law firms are not as scared as they were in 2009.”

Twenty of the 26 largest firms in Texas participated in Texas Lawyer ‘s 2010 New Associate Hires Survey.

See related charts:

New Associate Statistics 2010
New Associates’ Start Dates
Female and Minority New Associates
New Associates’ Practice Areas
New Associates’ Law Schools
Offers to Summer Associates at Large Firms
Law Firm Perks

Six firms decline to provide information for the survey: Brown McCarroll; Clark, Thomas & Winters; Gardere Wynne Sewell; Greenberg Traurig; King & Spalding; and Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons.

Of the 20 firms on the survey, seven deferred some or all of this year’s new associates until early 2011 — Andrews Kurth; Baker & McKenzie; Cox Smith Matthews; Fulbright & Jaworski; K&L Gates; Strasburger & Price; and Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Last year, 12 of the 20 firms postponed some or all of their first-year associates’ start dates.

The 20 firms report hiring 275 new associates, down 24.9 percent from the 366 first-year associates hired by the same firms last year.

The smaller number of first-years correlates with the decrease in the number of summer associates the firms hired in 2009, Cobb says. [See "It's Summertime, But the Working Isn't Easy," Texas Lawyer, May 25, 2009, page 1.] Large firms typically hire first-year associates from the pool of students who work for the firms as summer associates. In 2009, firms nationwide downsized their summer associate classes due to the economy and an expectation of less legal work in 2010, Cobb says.

In 2009, 227, or 62 percent, of the 20 firms’ first-year associates began work in the fall. This year, the same firms invited 223, or 83 percent, of their new associates to start in the fall.

Litigation is the most popular practice area for Locke Lord’s new associates, Perillo says.

“The litigation area has been hot for the last few years, and that continues to be the case,” he says. “In corporate, capital markets and IPOs have been down, but general corporate has stayed pretty steady and seems to be increasing,” he says.

Sumrow says Thompson & Knight’s work has increased this year across practice areas, particularly real estate, finance, corporate and tax. He says the firm also has seen an increase in transactional work.

Jeanne Graham is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeannegraham.

See past survey reports on new associates:

2009:
* “Ready, Set, Delay: Most BigTex Firms Push Back Start Dates
* “Deferral Time: New Associates Stay Busy Before They Actually Start at the Firm

2008:
* “BigTex Firms’ First-Year Associate Ranks Rise By 5.2 Percent

2007:
* “First-Year Associate Hiring Down Slightly at Big-Tex Firms

2006:
* “Investing in People: With Salaries Up and Incoming Classes Flat, Firms Focus on Training New Associates

2005:
* “New Associate Numbers Climb at Big-Tex Firms

2004:
* “The Incredible Shrinking Class: Fewer New Associates Join Big-Tex Firms This Year

2003:
* “Stats Show Big-Tex Firms Taking a Wait-And-See Approach to Hiring

2002:
* “Firms All Over the Board