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Annual ‘Largest Firms’ survey shows more firms with growth

Law firm hiring is back on the rise, according to the 2012 edition of Virginia Lawyers Weekly’s survey of “Virginia’s Largest Law Firms.”

The annual compilation ranks the top 75 law firms in the commonwealth, based on the number of Virginia-licensed attorneys working in Virginia offices.

Last year’s results painted a bleak picture for Virginia’s top firms. It was apparently the first year in the history of the Largest Law Firms survey where firms reported more lawyer losses than gains.

But in 2012, many firms found themselves rallying. While the turnaround was nothing dramatic, it does offer a glimmer of hope. In this year’s survey, 34 firms reported growth while 29 noted losses and 11 held steady.

Following last year’s pattern, the larger firms took the harder hits. Ten of the top 20 firms continued to lose lawyers in 2012.

The largest drop in numbers was reported by Williams Mullen, who lost 29 attorneys over the course of the year. Hunton & Williams, Troutman Sanders and Oblon Spivak, McClelland, Maier & Neustadt also reported losses of 10 or more attorneys.

Reed Smith and Sands Anderson noted the largest gains, picking up an additional 10 and eight attorneys respectively.

McGuireWoods claimed the number one spot for the third year in a row, reporting 301 attorneys – the same number as 2011. Since last year’s survey, there were no changes in rank for the top seven firms.

However, last year’s top 10 newcomer, Vandeventer Black, fell from number eight to number 12, while Sands Anderson climbed back up to number nine. Cooley took over the number eight spot, and Hirschler Fleischer came in at 10.

Weathering the economic storm

At the beginning of 2008, more than half of the Largest Law Firms had reported growth from the previous year. This steady climb had been the norm for several years running. “Hiring is up” and “Business is good” were recurrent themes in our survey recaps between 2005 and 2008.

But later that year, the tides turned and many law firms across the country felt the squeeze of the recession, namely in the form of layoffs, hiring freezes and salary cuts.

So how did Virginia firms weather the economic storm?

To get a clearer picture, we’ve analyzed survey data for the past five years (see chart).

The outlook is not as grim as one would expect. More than half of Virginia’s Largest Law Firms employed more or the same number of lawyers in 2012 than they did at the start of 2008.

These results hold even better news for the commonwealth’s mid-sized firms. Seventy percent of firms that employ between 20 and 35 attorneys have grown since 2008. In comparison, only 10 of the 25 largest firms reported growth from 2008 to 2012.

For most of the top 75 firms on our list, the past five years have been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride in terms of hiring. Number of attorneys from year to year fluctuated, with no clear pattern emerging across the board.

Only two firms reported steady gains from 2008 through 2012. Hancock Daniel Johnson & Nagle and Midkiff, Muncie & Ross, both based in the Richmond area, each reported a slightly larger number of attorneys year to year, for five consecutive years.

A handful of firms also did not report any losses in the past five surveys, although some years they retained the same number of attorneys. The firms are: Woods Rogers (Roanoke); Christian & Barton (Richmond); Harman Claytor Corrigan & Wellman (Richmond); Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice (Tysons Corner); and Glasser & Glasser (Norfolk).

No firm featured in this year’s survey has suffered steady losses since 2008.

The complete survey results can be found here. The magazine-style version of the survey will be included with the April 30 edition of the paper.

To qualify for the survey, a firm must have reported at least 14 Virginia attorneys. Firm listings include basic information such as phone number and office location(s). Some firms provided financial data, and others took the opportunity to purchase an enhanced listing with additional firm information.

Most of the information appearing in the publication was provided by firm officials. In some cases, we relied on firm websites to provide the data. We have made every effort to present complete rankings. If we have missed a firm, please advise us so we can make sure the entry is included in next year’s survey.

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