Midsize law firms in the Midwest, outside the biggest cities, are hiring lawyers, opening offices and bringing on new associates this fall as they fare better than many larger urban rivals in the face of the recession.
Law firm leaders at the firms, with between 100 and 450 lawyers, say their better fortunes are mainly tied to being less dependent on capital markets and big mergers and acquisitions work than their megafirm brethren. Less expensive overhead, lawyers with broader skill sets and lower billing rates have also helped the Midwest firms escape the need to ax employees and expenses, unlike their coastal and big-city counterparts.
Nyemaster, Goode, West, Hansell & O’Brien in Des Moines, Iowa; Clark Hill in Detroit; and Barnes & Thornburg of Indianapolis are among the Midwest firms avoiding major cutbacks and steadily continuing to hire lawyers, if not as aggressively as in years past.
“We don’t have some of the same highs, but we don’t have some of the same lows,” said Rick Neumann, who is chairman of Nyemaster Goode, Iowa’s largest law firm, which has 95 lawyers. “I have not noticed anywhere near the kind of angst in the Iowa [legal] community that I’m reading about in the national press.”
Big law firms with offices in many of the nation’s most expensive cities are rushing to rein in spending, postponing the hiring of first-year associates to next year and scaling down partner meetings and summer associate programs, among other things. While some of the firms are still willing to hire partners with books of business, they’re doing so selectively.
DLA Piper, Latham & Watkins and O’Melveny & Myers are among the many firms that have shed lawyers during the past year. Typically, they attributed the cutbacks to a slowdown in financial securities, transactional and real estate work that forced them to get rid of employees who didn’t have enough work to do.
To be sure, the smaller Midwest firms aren’t saying they’ve totally skirted the effects of the downturn. Their clients are feeling the financial pinch and reducing legal spending, but the impact has been buffered by lower costs, shifting lawyers to different practice areas and attracting new business with lower rates.