Associate Hiring and Attrition at “Top 25” Law Firms

There was a time when lateral moves by law firm partners got most of the attention from the legal media.  As record numbers of associates switch law firms, however, legal publications have started to focus their attention on associate hiring.  By way of example, in recent months Firm Prospects has worked with various reporters on stories covering law firm associate hiring here, here, here and here.  Accordingly, we thought it would be interesting to take a broad look at the associate hiring and attrition rates at the twenty-five largest firms based on gross revenue (the “Top 25”).

Over the past twelve months, Firm Prospects tracked 4,458 associate hires and 3,935 associate departures, for a net gain of 658 associates at the Top 25, which equates to a 4.4% increase in total associates.  As seen in Figure 1., below, hiring varied greatly among these firms, with Kirkland & Ellis hiring 613 associates, at the high end, and Norton Rose Fulbright hiring 46 associates, at the low end. The average number of hires within the Top 25 was 178.

Figure 2., below, shows that Kirkland & Ellis and Norton Rose Fulbright were at opposite end of the attrition spectrum, too, with 323 and 55 departing U.S. associates, respectively. The mean level of attrition among these firms was 157 associates over the previous 12 month period.

Figure 3., below, shows the net associate hiring/attrition for the Top 25.  Kirkland saw the largest net gain in its associate ranks, followed by Cooley, Goodwin, and Latham, with net associate gains of 151, 129 and 106, respectively.  On a percentage basis, however, Kirkland, Cooley and Goodwin saw almost identical associate gains with all three firms hovering around 21% increases in their associate ranks as compared to one year ago.
It’s important to note that the above analysis is not intended to be a list of “winners” and “losers” based on total associate hires or net gains/losses within associate ranks. Whether a firm has been successful or not in expanding/contracting their associate ranks over the past year depends upon how that firm is attempting to position itself in the current market.  What we do know is that, as the data show, Top 25 firms are taking very different approaches in the current, high-demand-for-associates, market.

In-House Moves are Busy, too.

The red hot lateral associate market has received most of the press in 2021, but Firm Prospects’ data show that attorneys are not just moving from one law firm to another. Of the 12,500+ attorney moves we have tracked so far this year, 1,133 of those moves have been to in-house roles.

As shown in Figure 1., below, more of the 1,133 in-house moves tracked by Firm Prospects occurred in New York and California than any other state, with 222 and 180 moves in those states, respectively, followed by the District of Columbia, Texas, and Illinois.


 

Figure 2., below, shows the breakdown of moves to in-house roles by the top 10 most represented practice areas/industries. Interestingly, 32% of all in-house moves were by corporate attorneys, as compared to 17% who were litigators. As a percentage of total attorneys in those practice areas in our database, corporate attorneys were eight times more likely to move to an in-house role than were litigators.

 

 

Figure 3., below, shows that more attorneys moved from Kirkland & Ellis to in-house roles than any other firm tracked by Firm Prospects, followed by Ropes & Gray, Latham & Watkins, Sidley Austin and Cooley.


 

A large majority of the moves from law firms to in-house positions were made by associates. As displayed in Figure 4., below, just under 70% of all tracked moves were by attorneys who had an associate title with their law firm.


 

Figure 5., below, shows that Amazon far outpaced other in-house legal departments with 26 hires, more than the combined number of hires from the companies with the second, third and fourth most hires, Facebook, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, respectively.


 

Lastly, Figure 6., below shows the law schools most represented by attorneys who moved to in-house roles. NYU, Columbia and Harvard were at the top of the list, followed closely by Georgetown, George Washington, Northwestern and University of Pennsylvania. The graduation years most represented were 2013 through 2017, with 576 of the 1,133 attorneys graduating in those five years.

 

Destinations of Top 5 Law School Grads by Firm, Location and Practice Area

Where do recent graduates (’17 – ’19) of Yale, Harvard, Stanford, University of Chicago, and Columbia end up?  Check out the interactive graphs below to find out.  All data provided by Firm Prospects, LLC.

Law Firms

As displayed in Figure 1. below, Skadden ranks in the top 5 for all schools evaluated, with almost 8% of recent graduates tracked by Firm Prospects* from both Stanford and University of Chicago, and greater than 5% of all recent grads from the remaining 3 schools, at the firm. Davis Polk ranks in the top 5 for three of the schools evaluated, Yale, Columbia and Stanford.  Wachtell shows an affinity for Yale grads, in a tie for second with Davis Polk at almost 7% of the grads from New Haven while Cravath hires 5% of grads from Harvard and Columbia.  For more info, click and scroll through the interactive graph below.

Figure 1.

Locations

As to location of preference, Figure 2. below reveals, not unexpectedly, that New York City is the most common major metropolitan destination, by far, for the the students of these five law schools.  The data reveal, however, that there is also a correlation between where the school is located and where the students end up.  For example, almost 80% of recent graduates from Columbia are in New York City, as opposed to Yale and Harvard graduates, which sent 54% and 48% of their recent grads, respectively, to the Big Apple.  Similarly, 52% of recent Stanford grads stay in California, whereas only about 15% of recent Harvard grads head to the West Coast.

Figure 2.

Practice Areas

As shown in Figure 3. below, for all law schools evaluated, corporate and litigation are by far the most commonly chosen practice areas, due in no small part to those two areas making up a majority of the practices at large law firms in general. What is interesting to see, though, is that most of the schools have a relatively even split between corporate work and litigation, except for Yale, where nearly 56% of its recent grads went into a litigation practice while less than 14% went into a corporate practice.  Other practice areas that round out the top spots are: IP, tax, banking and bankruptcy.

Figure 2.

*The percentages listed above include only graduates tracked by Firm Prospects into one of the ~2,700 firms covered by it’s database, which includes secondary moves from clerkships or non-law firm positions, but it does not include graduates outside of its database.