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August 16, 2011 4:25 PM

Big Firms on Campus—And Ready to Recruit

Posted by Sara Randazzo

Law firm recruiting partners have gazed into their crystal balls, and what they see is a promising future for would-be associates from the class of 2013.

Firms across the country report a stable or increased need for talent as they begin hiring second-year law students to fill next summer's associate classes. "There’s a perception the job market has turned a corner," says Steven Sletten, chair of the hiring committee at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. "We're expecting this season to be more competitive. We're up to that challenge."

At 117 associates, Gibson, Dunn's 2011 class was one of the nation's largest, and Sletten says the firm expects to hire 10 percent to 15 percent more summers for 2012. Weil, Gotshal & Manges hiring commmittee chair Robert Carangelo says his firm plans to make an even bigger leap next year, going from the 65 second-year students it employed this summer to 100 in 2012, a 54 percent increase. 

Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy wants a "materially larger" class than the 39-associate group it brought in this year, says Jay Grushkin, the firm's senior hiring partner in New York. Milbank drastically cut back during the downturn, dropping from 78 summer associates in 2009 to just 20 last year. To get back on track, Grushkin says, the firm is increasing the number of schools and job fairs its recruiters visit from 15 to 31, and even sending chairman Mel Immergut out on interviews.

"During the credit crisis, the range of schools wound up getting a little bit narrower," Grushkin says. "We’re trying to get back to a more normalized or extra-normalized schedule."

At many schools, interview programs to fill summer 2012 classes began August 8, almost as soon as firms bid farewell to this year's summers. The push to move on-campus recruiting into early August has been underway since the early 2000s, when a handful of East Coast schools bumped interviews into the summer to give their students first crack at employers. By now, virtually all top schools invite recruiters onto campus before school starts. Still, firms are feeling the strain that a shortened hiring season brings.

"It’s a big time-suck right at the time when everybody is on vacation," says Morrison & Foerster chair Keith Wetmore, who won't be able to do any on-campus interviewing this year because of his own vacation plans. "It's a little bit more of an imposition . . . but we live with it." Wetmore says MoFo recruiters will visit about 30 schools this year with the goal of lining up 60 second-year students for summer 2012—a 20 percent increase over the 50 associates MoFo brought for 2011.

Some firms will be happy to simply maintain the new status quo established last fall. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, for instance, expects to hire a 2012 summer class roughly the same size as the 108-associate group it hosted this summer, says New York partner Jorge Juantorena. Shearman & Sterling recruiters are scheduled to visit 25 law schools in search of between 40 and 45 summer associates for the 2012 class, similar to the 41 it brought in this year, says cohiring partner Laura Friedrich. White & Case, meanwhile, aims to hire 60 2Ls for next summer, the same number it employed this year, says J. William Dantzler, Jr., the firm's New York hiring partner.

The optimistic outlook for summer 2012 hiring underscores a trend suggested by results from The American Lawyer's latest Summer Hiring Survey, which found that the average 2011 summer class size increased 25 percent over 2010 at 100 leading law firms. Among Am Law 50 firms, the survey found, class sizes were up 36 percent, to an average of 76.3 associates.

Hiring partners point to heavy workloads across practice areas as a key factor driving their recruiting efforts. "Our practices are busy," says MoFo's Wetmore. "Demand is increasing, and we're not going to be able to rely on the lateral market to address all of our future needs."

Sari Zimmerman, assistant dean for the career office at UC Hastings College of the Law, says that other law firm partners have told her that M&A, private equity, and real estate work is piling up. And in a practice that all but disappeared during the downturn, she adds, a few firms that didn’t hire enough associates last fall are even returning to Hastings to look at third-year students.

For students hoping to be considered by top firms, hiring partners say that one qualification—grades—still looms over all others. White & Case's Dantzler says that, with rare exceptions, students typically need a 3.4 grade point average from a top-tier school or a 3.7 GPA from a lower-ranked school just to land an interview.

At the same time, academic achievement alone isn't enough for some firms. "It used to be that a student from a top law school with good grades would get an offer," says Weil’s Carangelo. "Today, that's just the starting point. We look for well-rounded students who can interact with clients, have leadership skills, and are self-starters. We joke [that] we're looking for law students who we can put up for partner."

The traditional on-campus interview process—which, according to NALP, helped about one in six law graduates from the class of 2010 land their first job—faces a bit of competition this year. Job fairs, once mainly used to target diversity candidates, are increasingly going mainstream, while organized resume collections at schools to which a firm is unable to send recruiters are also gaining in popularity, career deans say.

The law schools affiliated with Tulane University, Vanderbilt University, and Washington University in St. Louis teamed up for a job fair in New York on August 4 and 5—before most on-campus interviewing began—that brought in 23 firms and four government agencies, according to Vanderbilt Law School's assistant dean for career services Elizabeth Workman. Students from those schools plus University of Miami School of Law also participated a 12-employer job fair on August 9 in Washington, D.C. The fairs gave some students the chance to snag a job offer even before the OCI season kicked off, Workman says. 

Another potential disruption to the traditional OCI process is a new Web site called JD Match that pairs law students and firms based on mutual interest using on algorithm akin to one used in the medical school admissions process. Site cofounder Bruce MacEwan spoke to The Am Law Daily about the mechanics of the new venture when it debuted in May.

So far, seven law firms—Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; K&L Gates; Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; McKenna Long & Aldridge; Proskauer Rose and MoFo—have signed on to JD Match and more than 1,000 students who have created profiles. Once the site's algorithm finds matches (as of August 11, MacEwan said only one successful pairing had been made), JD Match alerts the two sides and leaves the rest of the process to them. The site's founders see it as something to enhance, not replace, the OCI process.

MoFo's Wetmore says the firm thinks JD Match has the potential to find talent that isn't materializing during on-campus interviews, but that it's too early to say whether the site will truly complement OCI. The site has some high-powered names behind it, including MacEwan, who created Adam Smith, Esq., and former Northwestern University School of Law dean David Van Zandt, who recently joined JD Match’s advisory board. But as is often the case with law firms, few want to be the first to try something new.

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