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1st-year hiring: Slow to steady Md. law firms pace themselves; stronger demand for top students seen

By: Kristi Tousignant Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer April 22, 2014 First-year associate hiring either remained steady or went down at many Maryland law firms this year. For example, global firm DLA Piper US LLP’s Baltimore office took only one first-year associate this year, compared to eight two years ago. Nine first-year associates will start at Venable LLP’s Baltimore office in 2014, compared to 10 in 2012. More than ever, Venable’s Jason C. Rose said, top law firms are grappling for the top-ranked graduates. “What we have found is that there is more competition at the top level for students than there ever has been …,” Rose said. “The top 10 students will have opportunities, but it is harder for students who fall below that because there are not as many spots.” Hiring of first-year associates remained steady among U.S. law firms this year, according to National Association for Law Placement Inc. data. Last fall, law firms made offers to a median of eight first-year associates, who will start in fall 2015 after they take the bar exam. That matched the previous year’s median but was down from 10 the year before that. Rose said fewer summer associate positions at law firms in general have led to a decline in first-year associate hiring, since many firms use their summer programs to recruit new attorneys. “There are less summer associate positions across the board than before the economy tanked,” Rose said. “It’s better than a few years ago, but I don’t know if it will ever go back to where it was.” Entry-level offers fell drastically after the economic downturn in 2008, with a median of seven offers in 2009, compared to 15 in 2007, according to the NALP’s figures in February. Hiring in general in the legal services sector, which includes lawyers, paralegals and support staff, was up 0.7 percent in March compared to the same time last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment numbers. A state of flux Starting salary at DLA Piper in Baltimore, which has 130 attorneys, has remained steady — $160,000. The firm, which has 4,200 attorneys total, foresaw a greater need to hire in upcoming years and did not want to overcommit this year, said DLA Piper attorney Matthew F. Gorra. The firm plans to hire first-year associates for next fall from this year’s summer associate program, Gorra said. “When looking long term, we are cautious,” Gorra said. “No one wants to be in a situation where people are not fully utilized. People want to be fulfilled. … We want to maintain consistency there. We are doing quite well, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.” DLA Piper, Gorra said, takes a more methodic approach to first-year hiring since the culture of the firm is to bring in young attorneys who will stay and work their way up to partner. “We certainly want to make sure we are not short-staffed, as well,” Gorra said. “I think a few years ago, a lot of firms were dealing with that situation. We are past that stage. At this point, we are focusing on pursuing a consistent strategy.” Starting salary has also gone up since fall 2011 at Venable, with first-year associates starting at $150,000 this year compared to $145,000 three years ago. Venable, which has 200 attorneys in Baltimore and 567 overall, hires most of its entry-level attorneys from its summer associate program, which consists of first-year law school students, Rose said. “It’s difficult because you have to try to forecast two years in advance,” Rose said. “You have to do that to get the high-quality first-year lawyers.” First-year hiring is down at Miles & Stockbridge P.C. in Baltimore, which has 188 Maryland lawyers. The firm hired three students this year plus two from clerkships, while in 2013 it hired nine entry-level attorneys plus two from clerkships. The 2013 hires, however, were a spike from the previous year when the firm hired four first-year lawyers plus two from clerkships. Not hiring Whiteford Taylor Preston LLP’s Baltimore office is not taking on any first-year associates in 2014. Last year, the firm hired one entry-level attorney and two in 2012. The law firm has 114 Maryland lawyers and 162 total. Managing Partner Martin T. Fletcher said the firm does not hire as many first-year associates because the pool of attorneys with several years of experience has grown in recent years. “They tend to be more cost-effective because they have training and experience and all of that,” Fletcher said. “When one of our practice groups say they have a need, our typical preference is to have someone with a couple years’ experience rather than someone right out of law school.” Fletcher said many of the firm’s clients prefer to have more practiced attorneys working for them. “It’s just that we have not had a need arise where a first-year was the best fit,” Fletcher said. “We have hired people this year, but we don’t hire first-years just for the sake of hiring them.” Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore is also not taking on any first-year associates this year, though it has hired between two and three entry-level attorneys in the last couple years. The constants Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker P.A. in Potomac, which has 89 lawyers in Maryland, has hired two associates every year since 2012. Saul Ewing LLP in Baltimore has hired between one and two first-years in the last four years. The firm, which has 54 Maryland lawyers and 261 overall, increased its entry-level salary from $125,000 in 2012 to $135,000 this year. Offit Kurman, which has 73 lawyers in Maryland, does not hire first-year associates, said Howard K. Kurman, a principal at the firm. “We really haven’t depended on bringing in large numbers of first-year associates,” Kurman said. “It’s certainly a model large law firms continue to adhere to. … It just does not fit our profile at the present moment.” Most of the firm’s clients are entrepreneurs, Kurman said, who want to be represented by a small number of experienced attorneys, not a team of 10 lawyers including a few first-year associates. “We really have never had a model where we hired a lot of first-year associates,” Kurman said. “As we get bigger, we may change our model depending on our needs.”