43% of Law Firm Leaders Surveyed Expect to Hire Fewer New Associates

Posted Dec 1, 2008, 06:13 am CST

By Debra Cassens Weiss

Only 38 percent of more than 100 leaders of large law firms who responded to a survey are optimistic about their firm’s prospects next year.

Instead, a majority—53 percent—told the American Lawyer they were uncertain about the next year. That uncertainty appears to be affecting hiring decisions for new associates—but not for lawyers with more experience.

DLA Piper joint CEO Francis Burch Jr. summed up the prevailing sentiment in an interview for a story on the results. “Anybody who is running a law firm who pretends to be able to predict with certainty what the firm is going to be doing in the next year and how it’s going to fare is dreaming,” he said.

Despite the lack of optimism, 72 percent expected their firm’s overall head count to increase next year. Only 6 percent expected a decrease.

But don’t expect the increase to come as a result of bigger classes of first-year associates. Forty-six percent of firm leaders said the new associate class would remain the same, and 43 percent said it would be smaller.

Most of the leaders responded to the survey after Sept. 15, when Lehman Brothers Holdings filed for bankruptcy. While most expected at least a modest growth in profits per partner next year, 35 percent expected the figure to stay flat or decline, a percentage that is the highest since the American Lawyer started the survey in 2003.

The leaders appear to be taking a possible slowdown in stride, however. “More of us are taking the view that next year is going to be a very soft year for large law firms, and we have to adjust the practice and scope of our business to reflect that,” one chairman told the American Lawyer. “I think institutions of our size can do that, so I don’t see much panic.”

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