As the U.S. and global economies were battered by “the Great Recession” in the third quarter of 2009, recruiting volumes by U.S. legal employers on the campuses of U.S. law schools nose-dived. In fact, the data provided by NALP members about fall 2009 recruiting reveal that most of the trends and patterns that the industry had come to rely upon were upended, dramatically so in some cases. All of the markers that measure the strength of the legal employment market for new lawyers, such as law firm recruiting levels for summer programs and summer program outcomes, fell in 2009, continuing and accelerating the general downward trend in recruiting volumes that was measured in 2008. Related to the drop-off in the numbers in the second year of the recession was the phenomenon of deferred associate start dates. Inquiries were added to surveys of both schools and employers to gauge the extent of deferrals.
The offer rate to summer associates for entry-level associate positions fell by more than 20 full percentage points, from 89.9% in 2008 to 69.3% in 2009. This is by far the lowest offer rate measured since NALP began collecting this data in 1993. Similarly and not surprisingly, the acceptance rate for these offers jumped by nearly five full percentage points, to 84.5%, which also marks the highest offer acceptance rate ever recorded. The market for 3L law students looking for law firm work was barren, with only 3% of the law firms surveyed reporting that they recruited for 3L students (this compares with 3L recruiting rates of 25% in 2008, 42% in 2007, and 53% in 2006).
Equally dramatic has been the impact of the current economic situation on the fall recruiting of 2Ls. Across employers of all sizes, the median number of offers extended dropped dramatically to only 7 in 2009 following a previous drop from 15 in 2007 to 10 in 2008. At the largest firms of more than 700 lawyers, the median number of offers dropped from 30 in 2007 to 18.5 in 2008 to just 8 in 2009. Similarly, the percent of callback interviews resulting in offers for summer spots fell precipitously to 36.4% in 2009, after falling to 46.6% in 2008 from a figure that had hovered at or above 60% for the three previous years. Not surprisingly, the offer acceptance rate also jumped. At 42.8%, it is the highest rate ever recorded.
There remains, of course, tremendous variation in legal hiring — both by region and by individual employer, though these benchmark numbers continue to be a good gauge of the health of the entry-level employment market generally — but at this time all indications are that the market for entry-level legal employment remains very constricted and that legal employers will likely continue to approach all hiring extremely cautiously for the foreseeable future.