Biglaw, Job Searches, Summer Associates

The Incredible Shrinking Biglaw Summer Associate Class Size

A summer dreaming of having more friends.

Back in February, with the help of a report from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), we described the summer associate hiring market as “anemic.” Recruiting volume in fall 2012 was down compared to fall 2011, and the entry-level recruitment environment, in general, was characterized as “flat and faltering.” No wonder we haven’t heard many tales of summer associate glory — they’re probably still too terrified to have fun.

Be that as it may, amid news of layoffs and rumors of stealth layoffs, right now, Biglaw firms are handing out offers of employment like candy. But have you ever stopped to think about why they’re passing out $160K offers so freely?

Perhaps it’s because the size of their summer classes are significantly smaller than ever before…

But just how small are we talking? The American Lawyer recently compiled the results from its annual Summer Hiring Survey, and year over year, the average summer class size was down by 3.4 percent to approximately 34.6 summer associates per class, per firm. Recruiting directors say their shrinking class sizes were due to the “unpredictability” that’s naturally built into the summer hiring process. After all, “[i]t’s pretty hard to target an exact number that you think you will need two years down the road.”

From the looks of it, the exact number of people most firms thought they’d need two years down the road was “not many.” Just seven firms reported triple-digit class sizes reminiscent of the salad days of Biglaw: Skadden Arps (190), Gibson Dunn (149), Latham & Watkins (149), Kirkland & Ellis (135), Sullivan & Cromwell (124), Paul Weiss (114), and Weil Gotshal (101). Life sure was beautiful then, wasn’t it?

While some firms increased the size of their summer classes remarkably — like Susman Godfrey (up 110 percent), Schiff Hardin (up 92.3 percent), Milbank Tweed (up 86.7 percent), and Freshfields (up 53.8 percent) — others, like Patton Boggs, a firm that recently laid off associates, posted significant drops:

Kara Reidy, director of recruiting at Patton Boggs, says that in the two decades she’s worked at the Washington, D.C.-based firm, modest class sizes have been a constant. “We bring in the few good ones, train them, and get them going,” Reidy says. “We don’t have armies of first-years.”

That said, the economy did influence the firm’s decision to employ 16 summer associates in 2013, down 30.4 percent from last year’s class of 23. “This year, we thought it was a prudent idea given the market to just sort of bring in fewer summer associates,” Reidy says. She added that all but one of those summers got an offer to join Patton Boggs full-time after graduating.

Good work, Patton Boggs. Because of your prudent hiring policies, maybe a few years down the line, the firm will be able to “just sort of” lay off fewer associates, too. It’s something to aspire to in the future.

Which firms shrank the size of their summer classes? There are too many to list, so we’ll provide you with the ones that saw a marked decrease of 20 percent or more. Here they are in descending order:

DLA Piper: -45.6 percent
Winston & Strawn: -36.1 percent
Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart: -35.3 percent
Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati: -33.3 percent
Ropes & Gray: -32.5 percent
Patton Boggs: -30.4 percent
Holland & Knight: -30.0 percent
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett: -29.5 percent
Fried, Frank, Harris Shriver & Jacobson: -29.3 percent
Linklaters: -29.0 percent
Kelley Drye & Warren: -28.6 percent
Davis Wright Tremaine: -27.8 percent
Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz: -27.5 percent
Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young: -27.3 percent
Choate Hall & Stewart: -26.7 percent
Paul Hastings: -26.5 percent
Ballard Spahr: -25.0 percent
Foley Hoag: -25.0 percent
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld: -21.7 percent
Chadbourne & Parke: -20.0 percent
Edwards Wildman Palmer: -20.0 percent

For a full table of reductions or additions to summer class sizes from all surveyed Biglaw firms, click here.

It’s worth noting that some of the firms that posted sharp decreases in their summer associate class sizes — firms like Wilson Sonsini, Patton Boggs, Akin Gump, Fried Frank, and Edwards Wildman — were also lacking in the profits per partner department in the most recent Am Law 100 rankings. We suppose a firm’s internal financial issues may contribute to the “unpredictability” discussed earlier.

Let’s face facts: Biglaw firms are doing what they can to right-size themselves and prevent future layoffs. Look on the bright side, summer associates: at least you got an offer!

Summer Hiring Survey: Big Firms Slimmed Down in 2013 [Am Law Daily]

Earlier: Summer Associate Hiring Numbers Remain Anemic in 2012

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