There are no short memories when it comes to the actions law firms had to take to stay afloat during the recent recession, and recurring nightmares about it continue to mean reduced prospects for those at the bottom rung of the legal profession ladder. Even as the economy begins to rebound and business returns, many firms are either not convinced that recovery will be lasting or extreme caution is now ingrained as a permanent part of the hiring considerations. "Firms Keep Squeezing Associates," a recent headline proclaims in The Wall Street Journal. The related WSJ Law Blog story announces, "A Leaner World for Young Lawyers." As most recent law school graduates know, hiring tightened up in 2008 when the recession hit and firms slashed associate hiring, rescinding offers and even paring the ranks of experienced attorneys. According to Labor Department statistics, 41,900 law jobs were cut in 2009.
The National Association of Law Placement's 16 year retrospective on new associate salaries certainly shows why students tough it out and try to grab Big Law associate positions. The median salary at the largest firms rose 86% over the 16 year period, to $130,000 at the biggest firms-even higher in New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles where the average starting salary was $160,000.
To keep costs low, many firms are outsourcing work and using contractors in order to reduce the need for entry-level attorneys. Managing partners at firms of all sizes agree that incorporating cheaper alternatives into the way their firms manage costs is the new and future method of operation.
Larger law firms have the pick of graduates from the top of their law school classes at the best law schools. The battle for jobs is much tougher now for strong candidates from second-tier schools. As the number of associates hired remains flat, the workload continues to increase, the Journal reports that associates are working an additional 50 hours a year on average.
The partnership track is changing as well. The Journal says, "the road to partnership is longer and more uncertain than in the past. Many lawyers now toil eight to 10 years before being chosen." The partnership track once took roughly seven years.
Wall Street Journal Online
Wall Street Journal Law Blog
National Association of Law Placement