Results from two surveys show growth at the country’s largest law firms to be down significantly in 2008 although employment is generally still on the rise. The National Law Journal’s 31st annual survey of the NLJ 250 reports that those firms added 4.3% more attorneys in 2008, consistent with increases in 2006 and 2005 but at a lower rate than 2007’s 5.6%. Partner growth in 2008 averaged 3.5%, which was down from 4.6% in 2007 and 5.1% in 2006. Non-equity partners increased 9.2% compared to 2007, when their ranks increased 8.2% compared with 2006. The average number of women partners stayed stable.
The West Peer Monitor Index, a measure of legal market conditions, reported in late November that large law firms had the lowest productivity during the third quarter of 2008 since keeping records, on average down 4.5%. Productivity at the largest firms, the AMLaw 100, was down even more–6.5%, largely as a result of continued increases in hiring at a time when there is less (particularly transactional) work for those associates to do. Often it takes two years for large firms to respond to market conditions in their hiring practices.
According to the Index, average associate hiring at all firms declined 6% in the 3rd quarter of 2008 compared to 2007, with firms offering equity partnerships to half as many attorneys as they did last year (including mega-firm Mayer Brown, which recently announced making 27 partners worldwide compared to 43 last year). Average lateral growth remains comparable to 2007.
Billable hours for all firms dropped 2.5% in the 3rd quarter after declining 2% in the second quarter. Overhead expenses grew 6% compared to 8.3% in the 3rd quarter 2007 and direct expenses grew 8% compared to 9% last year.
The short-term tact many firms are taking now is to lay off lawyers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7,300 lawyer jobs were lost nationally between June and October, with an expectation of far more shrinkage when November and December numbers are tallied.
Big firms, and particularly the big New York-based firms who draw much of their work from transactions for or financed by Wall Street financial institutions, have been particularly hard hit, and are responding accordingly. The tally of recent attorney layoffs from New York offices includes 96 lawyers dropped from Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, 20 from Clifford Chance, 40 from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, 35 from Proskauer Rose, and 70 from White & Case. Clifford Chance attorneys have been quoted questioning whether it’s worth having a New York office at all. The fact that major transactional firms–Heller, Thelen, and now Thatcher, Profitt–have already folded this early in the recession may well presage more big firms collapsing in 2009.
Freezing salaries, as Latham & Watlkins has announced, and cutting bonuses in half and eliminating special bonuses, following the lead of Simpson Thacher, Davis Polk, Skadden Arps, Cravath and others in the US and Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance in the UK, are among the other responses to all this bad news, as well as cutting staff, reevaluating off-shore back office services, and trying to offer more flexible fee arrangements. The recent explosion of non-equity partners is also being scrutinized for its impact on firm finances during these difficult times.
Hard-pressed law departments are taking another look at the pros and cons of outsourcing, as well as insisting on more accommodation from their firms on staffing and pricing.
There are a few benefiting from the downturn. The work of outplacement firms has expanded exponentially and attorney recruitment firms have had an influx of talent. In recognition of this growing pool of lawyers, LegalOnRamp, among others, has added a legal positions component to its site. So those firms looking for talent are at an advantage now.
Is there any silver lining? Firms can take this time to experiment with different fee arrangements and also to shore up organizational fundamentals–enhancing performance evaluations, professional, leadership and business development training, and succession plans–so as to be better able to weather the continuing storm, and to be poised to take advantage of the economic improvements that will eventually come.
Although some pundits are claiming that the economic impact on the law business hasn’t been as disastrous as first expected (which we may have to wait a while longer to fully evaluate), there is no denying even at this stage a sea change of sorts—if only that the current fear and trembling in the legal community, historically one of the most economically stable professions, will cast a long shadow over firms as they embark on 2009 and the years to come.