As corporate and real estate work began to dry up during the recession, many young associates were forced to turn their attention to other practice areas -- and that has left a dearth of young transactional lawyers now that firms are looking to hire them again, according to firm leaders and legal recruiters.
"We just went through a search to hire somebody and it was difficult to find a candidate," said Maury B. Reiter, managing principal of Blue Bell-based Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein.
When the economy took a nosedive beginning in 2008, large law firms responded by moving many young associates to other, busier practices and by either significantly reducing or completely halting associate hiring, according to Mr. Reiter.
"They stopped making them in 2008 and all the ones who were doing that type of work in 2008 transitioned into something else," he said.
According to Mr. Reiter, his firm is now forced to train young associates "from scratch, which is always a challenge because we're not geared toward having extra time in our schedules."
He also noted that large firms are likely finding themselves having to rebuild their corporate practices after dispersing their associates elsewhere over the past few years.
Mark L. Silow, firmwide managing partner of Fox Rothschild, said his firm never stopped hiring associates to its corporate practice but did taper off its real estate associate hiring during the recession.
Mr. Silow said this year will mark the first time in four or five years that Fox Rothschild has brought aboard a first-year associate to its real estate practice.
But for those associates who temporarily transitioned from corporate or real estate into another practice area such as litigation or bankruptcy, or went to work in an entirely different field in 2008 or 2009, current law firm openings don't necessarily translate into job openings, recruiters have noted.
Maura McAnney of McAnney Esposito & Kraybill Associates in Pittsburgh said the rapid change in the law and in business gives a significant leg up to associates who are fully up to speed on the current status of the law in a certain practice area. Firms want associates who can hit the ground running, she said.
And Pittsburgh-based Lori Carpenter of Carpenter Legal Search said she thinks this problem of a lack of associates will only grow in the next year or so because there were a few classes of graduates that either went on to clerk or into public interest work, further deepening the dearth of corporate lawyers in the market.
Firms looking for a fourth- or fifth-year associate to fill a specific client need may have trouble filling that spot because more senior lawyers wouldn't want to do that level of work and there aren't enough lawyers at the necessary level.
Cozen O'Connor has increased its first-year associate class from 13 associates in 2011 to 20 this year, although it never stopped hiring real estate and corporate associates over the past few years, Cozen President Michael Heller said.
But given the slowdown in hiring in those practices a few years ago, Mr. Heller said he can see how some firms would be looking to beef up those practices now.