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Virginia law firms are hiring, but at lower pay and in lower numbers

Alan Cooper//November 22, 2010

Virginia law firms are hiring, but at lower pay and in lower numbers

Alan Cooper//November 22, 2010

New lawyers entering the job market are still having a rough time finding full-time legal work.

The results from our annual New Associates’ Salary Survey are in, and the picture isn’t great, but at least it’s better than last year.

The hiring profile of Reed Smith LLP, the Pennsylvania-based international law firm with offices in both Richmond and Northern Virginia, represents one end of the spectrum.

In a report to NALP, formerly the National Association of Law Placement, Reed Smith reported it was dropping its new lawyer pay by about 19 percent, but not hiring anyone.

The firm told NALP that it lowered the starting salary for Northern Virginia from $150,000 in 2009 to $122,500 in 2010 and from $130,000 to $105,000 in Richmond – and it doesn’t plan to hire an associate in either office.

But there is hope. Not all the reports from Virginia law firms to NALP were full of gloom and doom.

Hunton & Williams said it will hire six lawyers from the class of 2010. Three start this fall in Richmond and two more will come on board there in April. An associate starts this fall in its McLean office. The salaries for those starting this year are $145,000 in Richmond and $160,000 in McLean. Salaries haven’t been set for those starting 2011.

McGuireWoods LLP said it will hire five associates in Richmond at $130,500, one in Norfolk at $117,000 and one in its Tysons Corner office at $144,000.

Williams Mullen said it will hire four associates in Richmond and two in Hampton Roads at a salary of $117,000. But the new hires will have to wait a while before they can begin making a dent on their law school debt. They’ll start Jan. 18.

Troutman Sanders will add four lawyers in Richmond at $135,000, one in Hampton Roads at $125,000 and one in Northern Virginia at $145,000.

LeClairRyan is adding five lawyers at its Richmond office at what is says is $90,000+ to reflect reimbursement of bar review course costs and a bonus for attorneys who clerked at the firm while they were in law school.

National law firms with outposts in Northern Virginia generally are paying less than in 2009 and hiring fewer associates. (See chart) Reports to NALP may be inconsistent because they do not necessarily reflect the hiring of 2010 graduates.

In a departure from past practice, many firms delayed bringing on associates from the 2009 graduating class until 2010, so that some of the figures may reflect hires from both classes.

Those numbers coincide with The National Law Journal’s annual analysis of the largest 250 law firms in the country, which found that the total number of lawyers in those firms dropped 1.1 percent from last year to this.

The NLJ also reported that the percentage of associates in the 250 largest law firms dropped slightly to 48.1 percent, continuing a steady decline. The newspaper calculates the percentages of partners, associates, and “other,” which includes counsel, of counsel and staff attorneys but not temporary or contract attorneys.

The Hildebrandt Baker Robbins Peer Monitor Economic Index, which tracks the performance of larger law firms, echo the findings in the NLJ 250.

Demand for legal services was down 1 percent in the third quarter of the year compared with a year earlier.

Rates increased by 2.1 percent in the same time periods, but firms collected only 87 percent of what they had billed, which the report said was the lowest “realization” since the index had started tracking the figure.


Victoria Huber, the associate dean for career, academic and alumni services at George Mason University law school, said the lack of hiring by the big firms has “a ripple effect,” with graduates who might have expected to work for them in previous years having to lower their expectations.

Although only 25 to 30 percent of the school’s graduates typically go to work for a large firm, that means students at the bottom of the class are facing even more difficulty in finding a position, she said.

She said she traveled to Richmond for a breakfast for GMU’s graduates who were sworn in as Virginia lawyers on Nov. 3 and was pleased to find that several had found work in recent weeks.

“At least at that particular event, the buzz was really good,” she said.

She said the graduates are considering a broader range of options, including work that is not strictly legal.

One of those options is contract work through staffing agencies to review documents to see whether they’re responsive to discovery requests or contain proprietary, confidential or privileged material.

Although the work is repetitive and typically involves a project that may last only weeks or months and pay $25 an hour or less, most staffing agencies provide benefits, and graduates are happy to have the work in the absence of a better alternative, Huber said.

She noted that many GMU students work part-time for law firms while they’re in law school “so they’re used to hustling. Their psyche is prepared” to do what it takes to get their career on track, she said.

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