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Signs of a cautious comeback for law firm hiring

After two to three years in which law firms cut back on hiring first-year associates, lowered the salaries offered or deferred start dates for the incoming class, many in the legal community said they are feeling optimistic.

Summer program coordinator Jason C. Rose and M. Rosewin Sweeney, chair of Venable’s hiring committee in Baltimore, share a lighter moment at the office. The firm remains committed to hiring first-years, Sweeney says: ‘It’s good to have talented people at all levels of experience. It’s good to have that kind of energy that a new lawyer brings.’

Erek Barron, chair of the Young Lawyers Section of the Maryland State Bar Association, is among them.

“I want to say it’s getting better,” Barron said. While he still sees a lot of recent law school graduates struggling, he said, “I just hear of more folks looking and hiring. More people seem to be interviewing.”

Whether that optimism is justified is hard to say. Hiring numbers for first-year associates remained largely the same among Maryland firms who responded to a survey by The Daily Record (see table below).

Nationally, the legal services sector — a category that encompasses lawyers as well as paralegals and support staff — took a miniscule dip of 0.12 percent in March, according to the latest monthly figures from the U.S. Bureau of Statistics.

Even so, at 1,116,400 jobs, the numbers are higher than the 1,114,300 reported a year earlier. And locally, staffing agencies, universities and legal associations said the job market has remained steady.

At Robert Half Legal, a national staffing agency with an office in Baltimore, the demand for legal workers has remained constant over the past few months both nationally and regionally, said Jonathan Witmer, metro market manager for the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., office.

Witmer said firms are mostly looking to hire attorneys, followed by paralegals then legal secretaries and staff, and the most in-demand attorneys are those in the bankruptcy and foreclosure practice areas.

“It’s good news for people with those specific backgrounds in terms of looking for long-term jobs,” Witmer said.

Hiring more, paying more

Venable LLP, which has Maryland offices in Baltimore, Towson and Rockville, has nudged the number of first-year hires up by one and increased the starting salary, as well. Five first-year associates will start in the fall at $150,000, which is $5,000 more than last year and $15,000 more than the year before. The firm hired four first-years last year starting them at $145,000.

“It’s to stay competitive in the marketplace in terms of attracting talent,” said M. Rosewin Sweeney, a partner at the firm.

Though Venable hired nine first-year associates in 2010, the firm plans to continue consistently hiring first-years even if the group is fewer than in the past, Sweeney said. The firm has 545 lawyers, 255 in Maryland.

“It’s good to have talented people at all levels of experience,” Sweeney said. “It’s good to have that kind of energy that a new lawyer brings.”

Saul Ewing LLP, which has an office in Baltimore, is also raising salaries. First-year associates will start at $125,000 this year compared to $110,000 in 2011 and 2010.

Erik F. Williams, a partner at the firm, said he has seen salaries rise slowly as the economy improves.

“The trend I see now is those salaries are starting to go up and reaching pre-economic downturn numbers,” Williams said. “That’s part of our strategy, as well — bringing numbers back up. To get the best candidates, you have to have competitive salaries. It is a highly-competitive market for the best first-year associate candidates.”

The Philadelphia-based firm has 236 lawyers, 52 in Maryland, and will hire three entry-level associates in Maryland this year. Last year, it hired just one.

The firm spends a lot of time recruiting on-campus at Maryland law schools and doing on-campus interviews, hoping to find lawyers who will stay at Saul Ewing for their whole careers, Williams said.

“We train them through the summer program and the early years of their careers as they advance through the ranks to partnership,” Williams said. “That’s been the recipe that’s helped us maintain our culture. It’s something that’s very important to us and quite a bit of time and money and resources are put into that strategy for growth.”

Lateral hires

Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP, which has offices in Baltimore, Bethesda, Columbia and Towson among others, does not plan to hire any first-year associates to start this fall. Last year and in 2010, the firm hired two first-year attorneys, at salaries up to $125,000.

Martin T. Fletcher, managing partner of the Baltimore office, said the firm has been hiring attorneys with more experience in recent years.

“Right now, in this market, there is a tremendous pool of skill and trained associates out there and so we have been picking those up with some of our lateral acquisitions and haven’t needed to go out and specifically hire first-years,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said if the firm has a need for first-years in the future, it would not hesitate to hire them, but, for now, it is hiring only when positions open up.

“We don’t intend to be blindly hiring or hiring without need,” Fletcher said. “We look for the most qualified candidates and for the last several years we have been able to find some with clerkship experience or whatever and that’s a pretty attractive way to go when you have that option.”

At Offit Kurman, the strategy has always been to hire laterally, said Theodore A. Offit, managing principal at the firm, a pattern he said will continue this year. The firm has not recruited on-campus at law schools for the past 10 years, Offit said.

“This has been our plan,” he said. “We have primarily grown by lawyer acquisitions, but it has been at the lateral level when we hire. We have never gone below second or third-year.”

Based in Maple Lawn with offices in Baltimore and Owings Mills, Offit Kurman is committed to growth but does not have a program that would support and train first-years, Offit said.

“Young lawyers coming out of school are tremendously talented,” Offit said. “We are really impressed by the type of folks coming out of law school, but just don’t have the development program in place to utilize their talents and skills. Look, I view law as an applied profession. You don’t get out of law school and know how to practice law. You need to go through a couple years of training and projects to have some real experience.”

Lerch, Early & Brewer, Chtd. in Bethesda said it had no room to hire after acquiring 13 new people last fall, two of whom were attorneys out of clerkships and one junior associate. The firm absorbed eight lawyers from the land-use practice of Holland & Knight in Bethesda, and two lawyers from a bankruptcy practice that had been eliminated at Jackson & Campbell, P.C. in Washington, D.C., said David H. Anderson, chief operating officer at the firm.

“A lot of it is based on needs of the firm in any given year,” Anderson said. “We had an intergrowth year for us last year so we had to fill the gaps we had.”

With 62 attorneys, Anderson said, the firm cannot hire groups of first-year associates the way bigger firms can.

“Unlike big firms, where people churn in and out, we are not of that size where we are hiring new graduates and getting rid of some that are not working out,” Anderson said. “We grow at a certain pace. It’s only under certain circumstances where we have had enough growth in certain areas or expansion into certain areas where we go out and hire associates.”

Ballard Spahr LLP hired four attorneys laterally this year but will not be bringing on first-year associates in Maryland, said partner Jon M. Laria.

The firm did not have a summer associate program in 2011 or 2010, when “everyone was evaluating their hiring needs,” Laria said.

This year, though, two summer associates will be starting at the firm.

“We are glad to be back in the cycle,” Laria said. “There’s obviously a hiccup associated with the downturn. Like everyone else, we kind of took a step back to evaluate. We feel like we are back in the swing of things.”

The status quo

In Baltimore, DLA Piper US LLP’s first-year associate hiring has remained steady over the past several years. The firm’s Baltimore office hired four first-years last year and four more will start this fall at $160,000, a salary figure that has also remained constant at the 150-lawyer firm. All first-years are hired through the firm’s summer associate program, which students go through prior to their third year.

“We think it’s worked for us to do it this way,” said partner Matthew F. Gorra. “Although we are certainly open to thinking progressively, we have not felt the need to scrap the summer associate program. It provides a lot of benefit in our relationship to schools, the way we are invested. You do get a long time to work with someone before you hire them.”

The Baltimore office has hired every summer associate it has taken on in the past few years, Gorra said.

“Some other firms take a different approach,” Gorra said. “They hire some numbers like it’s a competition. We think we do a pretty good job of intentionally and selectively assessing our summer associates. It’s more of a confirmation than a tryout.”

First-year associates will start in the fall this year, whereas last year they were deferred to a January start date, Gorra said.

“It absolutely has to do with hiring needs and need for entry-level associates at that time, not unlike most larger law firms,” Gorra said. “We did have a policy of deferring people.”

Gorra said the firm, which has about 4,200 attorneys in offices around the world, plans to continue its steady rate of hiring entry-level associates, but hopes to be able to hire more in upcoming years.

“Projecting out into the future, we probably will be continuing to stay on roughly the same path as the past couple years, with maybe three or four first-years, but that all depends on the econ and the work we do and the work clients ask us to do,” Gorra said. “Our hope is that we will be increasing our numbers because that would be reflection of a stronger economy.”