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Lawyering up

August 29, 2003 | Boston Business Journal

While the summer has been far from golden, legal recruiters said job prospects for associates have been brighter in recent months, with law firms tweaking staffing levels to meet client needs.

Firms are more receptive to résumés now than earlier this year, and most of the city's large firms have at least one or two active searches, said recruiter Robert DeLena of Boston-based Legal Staffing Solutions.

"This increased interest level has generated interviews for top-level candidates and, in some cases, job offers," DeLena said.

Legal Staffing has recently made two associate placements, DeLena said, despite the region's traditional hiring slowdown in July and August.

"That should bode well for the fourth quarter, and it makes everyone very optimistic for 2004," DeLena said.

The market is better now than several months ago, agreed recruiter Mark Kwatcher of Boston-based Kwatcher Legal Placement. Firms are responding to a modest pickup in legal business, and some are seeking to fill in ranks previously weakened by layoffs during the past couple of years, Kwatcher said. And it's not just the firms that laid off sizable groups of attorneys when revenue dipped, according to Kwatcher.

"Those who had performance-based layoffs are using this as an opportunity to upgrade their associate ranks with people who they might otherwise not have had an opportunity to hire," Kwatcher said.

Replacement hires are plentiful, said recruiter Rebecca Sacks of Norwell-based Sacks Consulting, who said she's involved in several confidential searches for firms looking to upgrade their legal ranks.

"It looks to me that they're getting a little edgy about the quality they have," Sacks said. "They're shopping around for quality and replacing weak links."

Even firms that have not inked employment contracts with new lawyers are staying in the game, including Brown Rudnick Berlack Israels LLP.

Brown Rudnick has not hired any lateral associates this summer, but it is actively recruiting for various departments, according to director of professional recruiting Megan Johnson.

An informal Boston Business Journal survey of the city's top 15 law firms revealed that while the number of so-called first-year associates, who graduated from law school earlier this year, is largely comparable to last year, about 10 firms have signed on, or are in the hunt for, a select number of other associates.

There are at least four associate openings at Palmer & Dodge LLP, for example, in several departments, said hiring partner Elizabeth Seaman, which is "more than at any time in the past year."

Since the beginning of the year, Holland & Knight LLP has hired four lateral associates and four senior counsel, said Boston executive partner Mark Michalowski.

Michalowski described it as "needs-based hiring, particularly in litigation."

"With the market being how it is, we've seen some really good mid-level associate résumés," Michalowski said. "We've got plans to hire a few more in labor and employment, construction and litigation."

Bingham McCutchen LLP, likewise, has hired four lateral associates this summer in both the corporate and litigation areas, said spokesman Hank Shafran.

"We're adding people where we need them," Shafran said.

The job search process was painless for new Goulston & Storrs PC associate Patrick Mitchell, who joined the firm from Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault LLP earlier this month. Mitchell, a corporate lawyer with expertise in commercial lending, mergers and acquisitions, technology licensing and venture capital, said he began scouting for a new job with a smaller firm in early June after several months of mulling his options, and had an offer from Goulston by the end of that month.

"I had no illusions about the state of the job market and was thinking I'd test the waters," Mitchell said. "In a very short period of time, I had the luck of reeling in the marlin."

Goulston has hired five lateral associates since the beginning of the summer and continues to look for other lawyers.

Goulston has hired five lateral associates since the beginning of the summer and continues to look for other lawyers.

"We see in this kind of marketplace an opportunity to attract extraordinarily high-quality folks," said co-managing partner Doug Husid.

Most local law firms still have excess capacity at the associate level, said Nutter, McClennen & Fish LLP managing partner Michael Mooney. Yet despite Mooney's assessment of the market, Nutter has hired three associates in the last six months, Mooney said.

"It's just where we had a particular spot we wanted to fill," Mooney said. "We haven't done heavy lateral hiring."

Beyond the glimmer of new opportunities at most of the prestigious firms, two firms that deferred first-year associates last year, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo PC and Sullivan & Worcester LLP, are bringing this year's crop of lawyers into the fold as scheduled. Economic conditions forced both firms to delay the start dates of first-year associates last fall, in some cases by up to a year, but Mintz Levin's new crop of lawyers is arriving as scheduled in October, said William "Mo" Cowan, the chairman of the firm's hiring committee in Boston.

"We, like every other law firm, see an uptick in the marketplace," Cowan said. "They're arriving because we have a need for new lawyers."