By Roy Strom
Before the recession hit in 2008, Linda Doyle said McDermott Will & Emery hired about 100 new associates each year. Today, that number stands around 50.
"I'm not so sure we will ever get back to those numbers," said Doyle, the firm's national hiring partner. "I think the practice of law in large law firms has changed in terms of the associate model."
McDermott, for example, developed associate-light staffing models that use more contract attorneys. It also created an e-discovery center mostly staffed with lawyers not on a partner track.
"(That) allows us to price our overall legal services at a more attractive rate for the client and so those lawyers have replaced some of the need for 100 new associates every year," Doyle said.
A similar dynamic played out at many large firms during and after the 2008–2009 recession. Associate class sizes at Illinois' 10 largest firms appear not to be returning to the sizes they were pre-2008 recession, says the 2012 Chicago Lawyer Law Firm Survey.
The magazine's survey based its 2012 numbers on data provided by the firms as of Jan. 1, 2012. The associate chart can be found on page 36. The 2007 data was based on the 2007 Chicago Lawyer survey.
Kirkland & Ellis, Illinois' largest firm, reported 306 associates in its Illinois offices this year compared to 330 in 2007, the survey says. Sidley Austin, Illinois' second largest firm, reported 245 associates worked in its Illinois offices this year as compared to 281 in 2007, the survey says.
Mayer Brown said it employed 192 associates in 2012, while in 2007 it employed 224 associates, the survey says. Winston & Strawn reported 208 Illinois associates this year, as compared to 190 in 2007, the survey says.
McDermott employed 89 in 2012 and 93 in 2007, the survey says. Jenner & Block employed 138 associates in Illinois in 2012 versus 196 in 2007, the survey says.
In addition to shrinking class sizes, the economic climate meant firms looked for places other than on a client's bill to train associates. New approaches emerged to train freshly minted lawyers at some firms that remain in place today. And new lawyers looked for new ways to get hired by law firms, such as going overseas to places like China where firms needed additional lawyers.
Leaders of the large firms featured in this month's cover story weighed in on what they now look for in associates and how those associates can succeed in the new large firm environment.
Getting in the door
The resume for a "perfect associate" remains largely unchanged from what it looked like before the recession, said Amy B. Manning, a former co-chair of the national recruiting committee at McGuireWoods.
"I think for the best candidates, there's always been a significant amount of competition" among law firms, said Manning, who now serves on the firm's executive committee and board of partners. "In prior classes you might have reached lower down into the classes at a school. But it's always true that for the top candidates, there's significant competition no matter what."
McGuireWoods employed 47 Illinois associates in 2012, compared to 54 in 2011, the law firm survey says. In 2007, the firm employed 73 associates in the state.
The legal field "is a talent business, and so we're always looking for the best talents," Manning said.
McDermott's Doyle said her firm's team of lawyers involved in recruiting reviewed their minimum grade requirements in 2009. They considered raising those requirements as the firm looked to fill fewer spots.
"But it cuts both ways," Doyle said. "There are fewer jobs, so in some ways you can be more selective. On the other hand, the best and the brightest students are getting offers from the same 10 law firms."
Because of that intense competition, and because the firm's minimum grade requirements "have always been pretty high," Doyle said the firm didn't make any changes.
Still, her team reviews trends in grades at law schools where the firm recruits to determine if grade requirements at any school need shifting, Doyle said.
Bill Chamberlain, an assistant dean at Northwestern University School of Law's Center for Career Strategy and Advancement, said because of the tight competition at the largest law firms, he encourages students to apply for jobs outside of the top-paying, largest firms.
He advises students against "interviewing above their GPA," although he acknowledges the pressure law students face, given their debt load, to land a top job.
"If a firm generally hires students with 3.9 (GPAs) and you have a 3.0, it's going to be hard to interview above that enough to get yourself an offer," Chamberlain said.
Matthew J. Fischer, a partner at Schiff Hardin who chairs the firm's Law Student Recruitment Committee, said his firm doesn't focus strictly on "looking for the person at the top of the class."
Chicago Lawyer's survey showed that Schiff Hardin employed 57 associates in its Illinois offices in 2012 and 90 in 2007.
"We really try to get to know the students in terms of their experiences and what has made them successful in the past," Fischer said. "We find people who are motivated to work on really hard problems and we find that is a very strong predictor for success."
New training models
After Amy Lauricella's summer associate position at Drinker Biddle & Reath in 2008, like many other associates working at large firms across the country at that time, she feared her position as a first-year associate might be in jeopardy.
Chicago Lawyer's survey shows Drinker Biddle employed 52 associates in its Illinois offices in 2012 and 55 in 2007.
All but about one of her law school friends at least saw their starting date delayed, Lauricella said.
But soon before finals, during her third year of law school, she received a letter with a calming message from the firm chairman.
"Don't worry, we're not deferring you, you'll be starting on time," Lauricella said, referring to the letter. "But in order to add value to the clients and make this process a little more of a transition for you, we're going to put you through a training program that we've been contemplating."
Edwin A. Getz of Drinker Biddle & Reath (right) said a training program that started in 2009 initially helped avoid a delay in hiring that year's new associates like Amy Lauricella. But it remains in place today because of its effectiveness in training young associates, he said.
Photos by Natalie Battaglia.
The firm placed Lauricella and the rest of Drinker Biddle's 2009 first-year associates in a six-month training program that included hands-on legal workshops with partners, shadowing attorneys and, in general, learning what it means to be a practicing lawyer, she said.
The program came with a reduced salary and the associates did not bill clients for those first six months. After being deemed a success by associates like Lauricella and other members of the firm, the program continues today for a four-month time frame.
Edwin A. Getz, Drinker Biddle's regional partner in charge of the Chicago office, said the firm initially viewed the program as a response to clients who "voiced some displeasure with the notion of having brand new, untrained lawyers, fresh out of law school working on matters at fairly high billing rates."
But the firm also benefits from associates who, after this program, knew more about what it meant to be a lawyer in practice, Getz said.
"Lawyers in law school are trained to do well in law school and they're not really trained … in the practical aspects of lawyering," Getz said.
"And a significant part of what this program is doing is just that: To really educate lawyers who have been taught in law school to think in certain analytical ways to apply those analytical skills to practical problems."
Lauricella said the program also helped her to more easily navigate whom to approach with a question on a matter. She knows partners across all practice groups from their work in the training program.
"Walking around the halls now ... I don't see a face that I'm not familiar with," she said.
A Sidley Austin training program uses some less conventional methods to train its associates.
Over the past five years, Sidley Austin "bulked up" its lawyer training and professional development team, said John O'Hare, a partner who co-chairs the firm's annual "Corporate College" — a three-day legal boot camp for first-year associates.
Jody Rosen Knower heads the development team, which employs lawyers alongside theater production veterans and other professionals who help put on about 350 educational events each year, Knower said.
Investing in associate training becomes more important for law firms when their clients face difficult financial times, she said.
"Similar to our peers, we're seeing that clients are being much more cautious about how they are using outside law firms," Knower said. "And so we have to be responsive to that. We have to be sure the lawyers we have here understand efficiency is an important skill for them to recognize and demonstrate."
In an effort to do that, Knower's team puts on shows, organizes mock assignments for new associates and develops new programs to easily share the knowledge of experienced partners with young associates.
For example, the team created something called "Voices of Sidley," an online program where partners recount their personal learning moments in hopes that associates can take heed, Knower said.
Her team continues to grow (she recently made two new hires) as the firm acknowledges that "the world is changing, there's no doubt and I think our role is to be as responsive to those changes as we possibly can be," she said.
Leaders weigh in
With smaller incoming associate classes, it becomes important to find a greater percentage of associates who want to become a partner at a firm, said Schiff Hardin's Managing Partner Ron Safer.
To do that, he said the firm "spent a considerable amount of time identifying success traits for our successful associates and partners and then we developed an interview system, which includes panel interviews, to help identify those traits."
He said he looks for people who perform well in teams, possess the work ethic needed to excel at a law firm and can grow business.
"The interview process is no longer: 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'" Safer said. "It is: 'What have you done that demonstrates these things?' And we determine that through precise questions."
Once hired, associates now move through the ranks based on achieving excellence in a set of "core competencies" in their practice, Safer said.
Smaller incoming classes mean large firms can't afford to hire associates who don't end up sticking around, said Bert Krueger, chairman of the management committee at Mayer Brown.
"That's over with, in terms of just bringing in large classes of associates, figuring a number of them would peel off over the years because they wanted to go to other opportunities," Krueger said.
"But at the same time, you can't afford to pull up the ladder for a period of time and then have opportunities gaps and experience gaps down the road. We have to make investments in our best people no matter what the economy is."
Once inside a large firm, Vince Sergi, national managing partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman, said his firm looks to promote associates who "have an external following as well as an internal following.
"You can't just be a great helper. We like to see external clients. Clients that call you, want to work with you, send you a piece of business … If you weren't there, they'd be upset that you left."
Chicago Lawyer 's survey shows Katten employed 109 associates in Illinois in 2012 and 148 in 2007.
Lee Ann Russo, administrative partner for Jones Day's Chicago office, said her firm looks to promote associates who "show us they can handle a major matter without supervision."
Associates also need to understand Jones Day's approach to legal work that involves "putting together the right teams with the right people in the right offices for any project with the expectation that they're all going to work together," Russo said.
Jones Day employed 97 associates in Illinois in 2012, the survey says. That compares to 96 in 2007.
William A. Rudnick, co-managing partner of DLA Piper's Chicago office, said his firm imprints the importance of client generation in the minds of associates from the moment they step foot in the door.
DLA Piper employed 60 associates in Illinois in 2012, as compared to 114 in 2007, the survey says.
"It isn't that somebody one day becomes a partner, and then all of a sudden they are surprised to learn that in order for the firm to run, we need to continue to bring in work from clients and continue to grow that work from clients," Rudnick said.
"From a training and development perspective, in addition to how to defend a deposition or how to draft a loan agreement, we also focus on how to think about developing business."
If not here, where?
If the door to an associate position at a large firm appears locked in the U.S., there might be an opening in the Far East for a recent U.S. law school graduate.
Unlike in America, the five largest law firm employers in China and Hong Kong in the 2012 survey expanded their ranks of attorneys and associates.
Baker & McKenzie, Mayer Brown, DLA Piper, Jones Day and Reed Smith employed the most attorneys in China and Hong Kong combined both in 2011 and 2012, with slight ranking fluctuations, the survey says.
Katten recently opened an office in Shanghai, where Feng Xue works as managing partner.
"For new U.S. graduates, if they don't have a good opportunity (in the U.S.), they can do some temporary work for a local Chinese firm," Xue said.
Fresh U.S. graduates can often find work in local Chinese law firms without learning a Chinese language, Xue said. They cannot legally practice law in the country's courts, but they can get useful experience with Chinese law and possibly move to a U.S. firm's Chinese office from there, he said.
Hugh T. Scogin, the managing partner of Reed Smith's Beijing office, proves that U.S. law school graduates can make a career at a large U.S. firm after starting in a local Asian law firm.
In Illinois offices, Reed Smith employed 41 associates in 2012, compared to 46 in 2007, Chicago Lawyer 's survey says. In its Chinese offices, including Hong Kong, it employed 69 associates, the survey says.
"When I was a law student many years ago, the first law firm I ever worked for was a Japanese law firm," Scogin said. "And I did a lot of research and helped them with the English language documents."
That entry-level position led to a long career, started in 1985, working at various large foreign firms in China.
He said many recent American law school graduates share his enthusiasm for working in China.
The problem comes in finding Americans with the right skills to practice there, he said.
Language abilities prove to be just one, albeit large, limiting factor for American candidates looking to land a job in a large U.S. firm's Chinese office, Scogin said.
The Chinese government requires that foreign-born attorneys in a foreign-based firm practice law in another country for at least two years prior to coming to a foreign office in China, Scogin said.
John Shi, a DLA Piper partner in Beijing, said DLA Piper's offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong hired 43 associates in the past 12 months. Sixteen of those new hires came from U.S. law schools.
He expects those offices to increase their associate ranks as the Chinese economy grows in world importance.
Kevyn Orr, firmwide hiring and diversity partner at Jones Day, said his firm hires a lot of their associates in China and Hong Kong from local law schools.
Jones Day employed 75 associates in China, which includes its Hong Kong office, the survey says.
"These are bright kids anywhere," Orr said. "We hire, for instance, out of The University of Hong Kong and that's ranked in the top 20 or 22 (law schools) in the world, and rated second to only the University of Tokyo in Asia."
But he said, "There's a strong market for U.S.-trained associates in China."
To help with that, Orr said his firm might institute a recruiting process aimed toward developing U.S.-trained lawyers who want to practice in China.
"A good business associate in China would be a highly sought after candidate," Orr said.
The outlook stateside and overseas
Beth B. Woods, a managing director in the associate practice group at recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, said it remains unclear how many associates large firms plan to staff as they adjust to an environment increasingly full of cost-conscious clients.
"I think there are still a lot of questions about whether we'll ever get back to pre-recession levels of associates," Woods said.
Driven by client requests for less-costly services, firms continue to use more contract attorneys, she said.
"So, necessarily, at the partnership-track level of associate, (large firms are) not going to need as many," Woods said.
Susan M. Guindi, assistant dean for career planning at the University of Michigan Law School, sees a somewhat rosier picture.
Her school's preliminary data for the summer associate class of 2012 shows an 11 percent increase in the number of students spending their summers at large law firms compared to a year ago, she said.
"That's pretty significant," Guindi said.
While the data did not break down hires by region, Guindi said most of the school's graduates work in New York, California and Chicago.
Chamberlain, from Northwestern, said, "I think there's still just enormous pressure on firms, because they have a very difficult time billing out junior associate times, so we might see more different" staffing models.
"I think that the (on-campus interview), knock on wood, because it works very well for our students, will be around for the foreseeable future, but the firms are in the driver's seat."
Karishma Khemaney, a consultant in Major, Lindsey & Africa's associate practice group in Hong Kong, said part of the growth in U.S. firms' associate ranks in Hong Kong and China can be attributed to those firms starting a local practice in those countries.
"Otherwise, they were kind of losing out on that work to their U.K. counterparts," Khemaney said.
In addition to boosting hires for local lawyers, Khemaney said U.S. offices in China and Hong Kong increased their hiring of U.S.-trained lawyers.
As the job market dried up in the U.S., Khemaney said U.S.-trained attorneys with the right language skills used it as an opportunity to make a move to China or Hong Kong.
"That's been happening for years and years, but maybe more so now because the U.S. has been so quiet," Khemaney said.