“Aaaaaand they’re off!”

Notwithstanding predictions of impending economic gloom or apocalyptic Mayan prophecies, 2012 brings some sort-of good news for incoming first-year associates: our survey findings show start dates have returned to pre-Recession timelines. We’re apparently (knock wood) past the days of first-years twisting in the wind with deferrals and rescinded offers. On the other hand, a majority of our survey respondents report that the size of the incoming first-year class has contracted significantly, with only 36% of you telling us that class sizes have returned to pre-Recession levels. For the full results of our survey, read on.

Some of our other survey findings:

  • 84 percent of respondents report that start dates have returned to a pre-Recession timeline.
  • 88 percent report that the first-year class will begin in the fall of 2012 (compare that with the 56 percent who said the same back in 2009, when so many firms pushed start dates well into the next year).
  • A mere 3 percent of you told us that you were aware of any rescinded offers or deferrals.
  • More than one-third of respondents reported a contraction of 50% or more in the size of the incoming associate class.

Which best describes the size of the incoming first-year associate class?

For some historical perspective, “pre-Recession” associate class sizes were a product of an unprecedented growth spurt in Biglaw headcount. The Am Law 100 employed approximately 42,600 lawyers in 1997, and 70,100 lawyers in 2006, for an annual growth rate of 7.2 percent. The average Am Law 100 firm grew by 308 lawyers over that period. (By the way, the fastest percentage growth — by Greenberg Traurig — was a whopping 348 percent.)

As we know, that growth came to a screeching halt. And since then, a confluence of related factors — including the rise of legal process outsourcing, technological efficiencies, and client pushback on established billing practices — have all combined to exert downward pressure on the demand for newly minted Biglaw junior associates. (For the macro view of the excess capacity of lawyers generally, check out this gruesome graphic in this Adam Smith, Esq. post.)

As Biglaw is forced to get leaner, it gets meaner to would-be associates. These diminished ranks of associates appear to be the new normal.


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