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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.