Hiring at Washington-area law firms is holding up despite contraction nationally

Washington’s largest law firms are reporting steady recruitment efforts for next summer’s associates, suggesting the region’s market for new attorneys is holding up despite a contraction in hiring nationally.

Although hiring for summer programs is down from pre-recession levels, most Washington offices of major firms — many of which are in the midst of recruiting on-campus now — appear to be on track to hire about the same number of associates for summer 2012 as they did this year. Their confidence is an indication they expect the legal market here to hold steady until fall 2013, when presumably 2012 summer associates would start as entry-level associates.

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Summer associates are typically second-year law students, the majority of whom are offered entry-level positions to start the following fall.

Several firms reported an uptick in their rectuiment efforts. Akin Gump said it went from 34 summer associates in 2008 to 12 in 2009, but hired more summer associates this year (17) than last year (11), and plans to bump up next year’s class slightly, to up to 20. Finnegan dropped from 35 summer associates in 2008 to 21 in 2009 and 15 in 2010, but this year crept up to 17. Wiley Rein, which reduced its summer class from 25 in 2008 to 15 in 2009, has stayed at 15 the last two years and plans to maintain that number next year.

Covington & Burling, the District’s largest firm with 526 local attorneys, had 47 summer associates this year, down from 54 in 2010, 62 in 2009 and 64 in 2008.

The firm is “looking to be status quo” in the number of offers it will make this fall to 2012 summer associates, likely keeping the target between 45 and 55, said Michael Imbroscio, Covington’s partner in charge of hiring.

“We wanted to be cautious,” Imbroscio said. “We’ve been very fortunate that even in this tough economy, we’ve been able to attract and make offers to virtually everyone we put in the summer program. We’ve been very mindful about overhiring.”

WilmerHale has seen its summer program decline in size since its peak of 78 summer associates in 2005. The firm had 51 summer associates in 2008, which dipped to 47 in 2009 and 26 in 2010 — the smallest class in recent years. This year, the firm boosted summer hires to 37, and said it plans to maintain that level for 2012.

WilmerHale’s decision to pare down its summer program even before the recession was in part to give the firm more flexibility to hire lawyers coming out of clerkships and lateral associates who didn’t previously summer at the firm, said Christopher Davies, a partner and chair of the firm’s hiring committee.

(Law firms typically hire most of their fall entry-level associates from a pool of second-year law students who were summer associates the previous year. However, firms leave a smaller number of spots open for law students who clerked for judges after graduation but who may not have been a summer associate at the firm.)

“We began to reduce the size of our summer class beginning with the class of 2006,” Davies said. “Our original goal was to reduce it gradually but consistently until it was in the low-to-mid-30s. Ultimately, we reduced it slightly more aggressively during the summer of 2009. ... We’ve since increased our target to 30 to 35, which we believe is a stable number.”

 
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