The job market for associate and first-year attorneys is beginning to thaw but remains somewhat icy as the legal industry slowly recovers from the recession.
A few firms have been very aggressive in expanding their local offices, taking an advantage of a "buyer's market."
"I think that firms are nervous, like a lot of people are nervous, but they're (hiring)," said Lynn Langley, a legal recruiter with Los Angeles' BCG Attorney Search. "We have seen quite a few openings (although) not as many as there were a few years ago."
San Diego-based Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch has hired 12 associates this year as it's experienced growth in its intellectual property, health care and public agency practices. The firm also has been able to hire in the real estate, environmental and corporate practices.
"We're a little bit of an exception in terms of the rate at which we've been hiring," said Tom Turner, Procopio's managing partner. "For the most part law firms have been flat, if not losing count to a degree.
"We're in a very fortunate position in the marketplace. Through this recession and down economic cycle, we've been able to gain market share and increase our overall productivity, primarily as it relates to the fact that our value proposition is important to clients. We have very affordable rates and top quality."
Hiring hasn't been limited to small or medium-sized firms. National law firm Cooley LLP also hired a dozen attorneys and one patent agent this year, including four business associates and eight in litigation. The hiring has been split evenly between lateral associates and first-year attorneys.
"(The market is) getting better, I think, because work is picking up and law firms need people to do the work," said Langley, who recently placed four intellectual property associates in San Diego.
"Some firms still continue to grow."
Despite the good news coming from Procopio and Cooley, the picture is not all rosy for young attorneys or associates looking to move. And it's not necessarily because of financial constraints of the law firms.
"The job market for young associates is really difficult now, particularly ones just coming out of law school," Procopio's Turner said. "I've found clients are very reluctant to utilize brand-new attorneys. They don’t want to pay us to get our people trained. They tend to hire associates with a few years of experience."
Jeremy Roth, managing shareholder of the San Diego office of the national labor and employment firm Littler Mendelson, doesn't typically hire new attorneys either. Littler has added several lateral associates recently, bringing the San Diego office to 30 attorneys.
But Roth continues to get inundated with unsolicited resumes, a strong indication of the difficulty of the job market.
"I'm told there are very few jobs," he said, adding, "I get a lot of clients saying, 'Hey, my son or daughter is in law school,' so I think there's a lot of people looking."
The market for associates remains strong in certain areas, according to BCG's Langley. Intellectual property litigation, especially for attorneys with technical backgrounds, is extremely popular, she said.
Turner said he's still looking to add, although he doesn't have anything specific in mind.
"We're not targeting any level of growth," he said. "We're only hiring as we perceive a need. We're getting a lot of new clients, and we're needing to step up.
"(Hiring has) so much to do based on the economy in general, so my best guess is that it will gradually increase as we see gradual uptick in the economy."
The market is stronger for lateral associates, especially those who can contribute right away and need little to no training.
"When you can hit the road running, they are attractive because they can work without minute-by-minute oversight," Langley said.
"Ones that are real go-getters and do business development with the goal of getting partner (are the most attractive)."