Growth at the 250 largest law firms in the country receded this year, likely a reflection of the economic downturn of 2008.

Growth at the 250 largest law firms in the country receded this year, likely a reflection of the economic downturn of 2008.

Growth at the 250 largest law firms in the country receded this year, likely a reflection of the economic downturn of 2008.

The results of the 2008 NLJ 250, The National Law Journal’s 31st annual survey of the nation’s largest law firms, show that they added 4.3 percent more attorneys this year, compared with 5.6 percent growth in 2007. The total number of attorneys working at the 250 law firms was 133,723, compared with 128,213 attorneys in 2007.

The gains last year represented the largest increase of attorneys since 2001, when the census ballooned by 8.2 percent. In 2006, law firm growth was 4 percent, and in 2005, it was 4.4 percent

DLA Piper held its position at the top of the list, with 3,785 attorneys. It grew by 4.5 percent in 2008.

Last year, DLA Piper unseated Baker & McKenzie as the nation’s largest firm, a spot that it had occupied since the NLJ 250’s inception. Baker & McKenzie held the No. 2 spot this year with 3,627 attorneys.

The law firm taking the No. 250 position, with 174 attorneys, was Columbia, S.C.-based Nexsen Pruet.

The results of the 2008 NLJ 250 indicate that law firms continued to add attorneys to meet clients’ needs, which increasingly are fanning out domestically and abroad. The expansion, however, apparently was tempered by an economic slump that included bank failures, rollercoaster oil prices, an erratic stock market and a $700 billion government bailout to resuscitate credit sources.

The 2008 NLJ 250 was based on attorney census information covering the period between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, which was provided by the nation’s 300 largest law firms.

This year, the cutoff point was a bit higher than in 2007, which was 172 attorneys.

Although the 4.3 percent increase in the number of attorneys was a slowdown from last year’s growth, the decline was not graver for a couple of reasons, said James W. Jones, vice president of Hildebrandt International, a law firm consultancy.

First, associate hiring generally runs two years behind the actual start date of those attorneys, since most large firms bring aboard associates during their second year of law school for full-time employment after they graduate.

“You have a pipeline that runs for a long time,” he said. “You can ratchet down your associate intake somewhat, but it is really hard to turn off the spigot.”

Second, with law firms facing the retirement of many of their baby-boomer partners, they still need to hire new blood, even in a down economy, he said.

“Those realities aren’t going to change,” Jones said.

Even so, 2008 proved to be a year of relative belt-tightening. Indeed, associate growth slowed by a full percentage point. This year, law firms added 4.3 percent more associates, compared with 5.3 percent expansion in 2007. The NLJ 250 law firms employed 67,648 associates this year, compared with 64,885 in 2007. Associate growth in 2006 equaled 4.8 percent.

Also lagging notably behind 2007’s results were partner totals. This year saw an increase in partners of 3.5 percent. Some 52,980 partners worked at NLJ 250 firms in 2008, compared with 51,191 in 2007, when partner growth equaled 4.6 percent. In 2006, partner growth was 5.1 percent.

The percentage of partners among all attorneys was about the same this year. The 52,980 partners (including equity and nonequity) represent 39.6 percent of all NLJ 250 attorneys in 2008. In 2007, the number of partners, 51,191, among all attorneys represented 40 percent.

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