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Private practice: Nice work, if you can get it

Entry-level hiring at big law firms in Maryland has remained sluggish at most firms, leaving many recent grads floundering looking for work.

But salaries have crept back up at some offices in the last few years, indicating that firms are competing for the best talent out there with the little resources they are willing to put toward young lawyer development.

Click here to see a chart of law firm salaries (.pdf)

DLA Piper US LLP has kept its entry-level salaries at $160,000, the same as last year, but it’s only bringing on two new graduates in January 2012, compared to one in fall 2010 and five in January 2011.

Venable LLP has upped its first-year pay to $145,000, which had dropped to $135,000 last year. But the firm is still not back up to the $160,000 it paid new grads in 2009.

M. Rosewin Sweeney, a partner with the firm, said the salary bump was “market driven.”

“It’s to be competitive and be able to get highly qualified candidates, to attract the talent,” she said.

While Venable is looking for exclusive candidates, its summer program and hiring has gotten more exclusive too, with four entry-level associates coming on in January, compared to the nine the firm hired the year before.

Jessa Baker, a law firm consultant with Hildebrandt Baker Robbins, said there are three components she sees affecting new graduates in the legal market.

First, she said, law firms are re-evaluating the strategies they use when they recruit and retain their top talent.

“Firms are looking at how they utilize the best talent for the right roles, and that will continue to affect law school graduates because there is inherently more supply than demand,” she said.

Second, firms are looking for entry-level associates who can add value to their businesses. That means graduates with what she calls “soft skills sets” they may have gotten in jobs before they went to law school, such as sales.

“They’re looking to hire the ultimate rainmakers for a firm, so those interpersonal skills that are not necessarily taught in law school are in demand,” Baker said.

And third, the nature of jobs for new graduates is changing to include more law-related positions, rather than legal. That could mean working for an e-discovery provider or other vendors.

Miles & Stockbridge PC hired five entry-level lawyers this year, compared to the three it brought on last year. While it may seem Miles & Stockbridge increased its hires, two of the five grads it hired this year were deferred from the year before.

“What I understand many firms throughout the country are doing is they’re hiring but they’re not over-hiring in the summer and that’s what we’re doing,” said Randi S. Lewis, director of diversity and professional development at Miles & Stockbridge.

Most of the people they hire come from their summer program, but this year the firm is bringing on someone who applied while doing a judicial clerkship with Court of Special Appeals Judge James R. Eyler.

“We brought this guy in as a courtesy and kept him in mind in case one of our litigation groups had a need,” Lewis said. “He came in, he was polished; he was genuine.”

And the firm had a spot to fill in its litigation division.

“A judicial clerkship is something that I recommend,” she said. “It buys them a year of time and they gain invaluable writing experience and other intangible experience. Assuming they do an outstanding job and have an outstanding work ethic, people will notice them.”

Ava E. Lias-Booker, the managing partner in the Baltimore office of McGuireWoods LLP, agreed that clerkships make for well-rounded job candidates. She said their research and analytical skills are sharper, and most have a strong work ethic, along with knowledge of the court system.

The firm hired one entry-level associate who completed a judicial clerkship just after law school.

The law schools know how valuable a clerkship experience can be for recent graduates, so they are pushing more students to apply. They also know that getting a clerkship in this legal market is tough.

“The competition is beyond fierce because even our very best students are competing not just with the cream of the crop of clerkship candidates at other law schools or in their own class but also with experienced attorneys who have been displaced,” said Dana Morris, assistant dean for career development at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

“They’ve been on the market,” she said. “They’re still on the market.”

That level of competition in all areas of the law market has worked on the nerves of many law school graduates.

“Based on conversations I’ve had with law students, I think that anxiety levels are still pretty high,” Sweeney said. “I have numerous acquaintances who are law students and even if they are finding jobs, there are many of their classmates who are very nervous and finding it difficult.”