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Big Law Hiring Went Up 27 Percent. Really.

Vivia Chen

June 25, 2013


Big Law is hiring! No, wait—it's firing! So which is it?

As you've undoubtedly heard, Weil, Gotshal & Manges just dumped 60 associates into the legal market—plus it is putting some 30 partners on a starvation diet (some partners will see a pay decrease as much as $500,000, according to an Am Law Daily source (see story here).

But on the same day, we hear this: "Large Firms in a Hiring Mood Again," cries the headline at The National Law Journal. The article says:

Law firms of 500 or more lawyers hired more than 3,600 members of the J.D. class of 2012—a 27 percent increase compared with the previous class—according to figures released on June 20 by NALP, the National Association for Law Placement. 

 Though the overall employment rate for the 2012 class dropped 1 percent compared with a year ago, Big Law defied the downward trend. Reports the NLJ: "Large-firm hiring was a rare bright spot in NALP's annual entry-level hiring report."

Marcia Shannon, a dean for career services at Georgetown University Law Center, seems to agree. She tells the NLJ: "There was a definite improvement in the number of people who went into the large law firm market in 2012 compared to 2011. We had about six percent increase. . . . We expected it to increase, but not quite that much."

Same story at the University of Pennsyl­vania Law School. Heather Frattone, a dean for career planning at Penn, tells the NLJ: "I do think that we are in a new normal, where things look better than they did in 2008 but they still aren't as good as the prerecession levels. Our [on-campus interviewing] this fall was really strong and steady."

Ironically, Weil's executive partner Barry Wolf also used the "new normal" term—albeit in a different way. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal's law blog, Wolf says: "We all expected [work] would pick up meaningfully this year, but it clearly hasn't. I think we've come around to the view that this is the 'new normal.' "

So which is the real "new normal"? Is Weil an anomaly or a harbinger of things to come? Put another way: Are those big firms that are stepping up hiring all in practices that are booming (like energy)—or are they in denial about the vanishing demand for their services?

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I have been in the bankruptcy field for some years now, and sadly, it's booming. It is somewhat slower than it was five years or so ago, but it's still a good field in which to earn a living.

Vivia, it's important to note that "energy" is a very broad field and in general, it is not "booming." Many national/international big law energy practices are struggling and cutting people loose.

Shale gas specifically is hot right now, but it is a field that is highly local. It's basically a very specialized practice combining real estate law and local regulatory law, and it tends to be dominated by smaller local firms that can do the work cheaply and by a handful of oil and gas firms with a lot of experience in Texas and the Gulf that have now picked up some of the work coming out of North Dakota, Pennsylvania, etc.

Given that law firms have never hired speculatively, i.e., without having the supporting work in hand, I'd bet that most of the hiring is in hot sectors such as energy.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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