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Hiring of young lawyers making a big-firm comeback

It appears that the death of "Big Law," so widely predicted a few years ago, has been greatly exaggerated. After a breathtaking pullback following the recession of 2008 and 2009, hiring at large law firms in Philadelphia and around the nation has revived.

It appears that the death of "Big Law," so widely predicted a few years ago, has been greatly exaggerated.

After a breathtaking pullback following the recession of 2008 and 2009, hiring at large law firms in Philadelphia and around the nation has revived.

Large classes of first-year lawyers are arriving this week and next at many local firms, and while the numbers are not as high as they were before the financial crisis, some law-firm leaders have begun to talk of staff shortages and juggling legal personnel to meet surging client demand.

Salaries for starting lawyers at big firms, decried by clients during the recession as excessive, also have held up. The starting salary for first-year lawyers at the bigger firms here will range as high as $145,000, while first-year lawyers in the New York and Washington offices of Philadelphia-based firms are paid up to $160,000.

"If you don't hire these young lawyers, then your farm system is not producing the top-notch lawyers who can deal with major clients and be involved in firm management," said Robert Denney, a law-firm consultant based in Wayne. "The value is [the firm's] culture, one, and, if you can accelerate their development, profitability."

While hiring at large firms has recovered somewhat, overall job prospects for lawyers nationwide, particularly recent law school graduates, remain tight and suggest law schools still are graduating too many lawyers for available job openings.

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP), a Washington-based group that tracks lawyer hiring and compensation, said that despite an uptick in jobs, the employment rate for lawyers in the Class of 2012, the last year for which it has data, had dropped to 84.7 percent. NALP said the employment rate declined because law schools graduated bigger classes in 2012. It was the fifth year in a row that the employment rate for newly minted lawyers had declined.

"The employment picture remains decidedly mixed," said James Leipold, NALP executive director. "However, with the Class of 2012, we see the beginning of a rebounding private-practice sector, particularly at large law firms, and with that, we see some rebounding salary numbers.

"However, we still see very high unemployment and underemployment."

At Center City's Morgan Lewis & Bockius L.L.P., the class of first-year lawyers will arrive Monday for two to three days of training. This year's class numbers 72, down from a high of 95 in 2007 but a marked change from the recession pullback.

In response to the retrenchment, many firms emphasized the recruitment of experienced lawyers with established client relationships who could add immediately to the bottom line.

But Michele Martin, the Morgan Lewis legal personnel partner,  said the firm emphasizes finding both first-year lawyers and experienced lawyers brought in from other firms who can bolster practice areas from the outset.

Center City's Drinker Biddle & Reath L.L.P., a 650-lawyer firm, started its class of 25 first-years Wednesday. At the height of first-year hiring several years ago, the firm had as many as 40 or 50 just-graduated lawyers, said Andrew Kassner, executive partner. Dechert, another large Philadelphia firm, has a first-year class of 72 lawyers, down from a hundred or more during the boom years. Pepper Hamilton L.L.P. started a first-year class of 23 on Monday, said Margaret A. Suender, director of professional development and recruitment. That's down from 30 or more in 2006 and 2007, but slightly up from the depths of the recession.

That the larger firms are hiring aggressively runs counter to predictions that the days of sprawling firms with global reach and sky-high rates would soon end. They simply were too costly and clients were fed up with the bills - or so the thinking went.

It hasn't turned out that way. While a handful of big firms have stumbled and even gone out of business, deal-making has revived and litigation is booming at many firms. Morgan Lewis has spent the last few years expanding its legal team in London and opening new offices in Dubai, Moscow, and Kazakhstan. Lawyers at Center City's Saul Ewing, a midsize firm focused on the mid-Atlantic, say that their litigation practice is straining to keep up with the workload.

Some firms have no first-year class and yet are hiring young lawyers aggressively. Post & Schell P.C., a 160-lawyer firm with an office in Center City, is constantly in the market for associate-level lawyers and occasionally will hire students directly out of law school, said Brian Peters, president and chief executive officer.

Peters said the firm's health-care, white-collar, and energy practices have been very busy.

"We are in a constant hiring mode for one- to four-year associates and sometimes will break from that mold to hire someone without experience but with very unique writing and research credentials," he said. "If I see a law student who on paper has a demonstrated record of intellectual rigor and seeking out opportunities and going after them, there is always a place for those students."