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19 March 2020

US firms trimmed 2019 summer recruitment programme sizes even as offer rates hit record high

Large firms may have been paring number of law student places in anticipation of economic slowdown, NALP report suggests

By Ben Edwards

Pic of Columbia Law School

Columbia University Law School's graduates are highly sought after by top 100 law firms Shutterstock

US law firms cut the size of their summer programmes for the first time in three years in 2019 despite offer rates from those classes reaching historic highs, according to a new study by the National Association for Law Placement.

The ‘2019 Perspectives on Law Student Recruiting Report’ showed that average summer programme class sizes fell to 13 from 14, having been flat since 2016. At the same time, the aggregate offer rate from those programmes reached almost 98% — a fresh record high for the second year in a row.

James Leipold, executive director at NALP, said: “With so many political and financial variables uncertain, and with post-recession entry-level lawyer headcount having been regrown to a level that might prove to be sustainable — while still falling short of pre-recession highs — law firms were quick out of the gate to recruit new talent, but small summer classes were the norm for most law firm offices in 2019.”

The acceptance rate on those offers was unchanged at 88%, a joint record high. By contrast, the pre-recession norm for acceptance rates was between 73% and 77%, the data showed.

Leipold said: “What these data suggest is that in the more than 10 years following the Great Recession, law firms steadily rebuilt their summer programmes and entry-level recruiting pipeline, but that regrowth has now definitively been capped, and in some cases firms have begun to implement a gentle taper, perhaps in anticipation of some economic uncertainty ahead.”

Nearly two-thirds of responding firms said their summer 2019 programmed included one or more first-year law students not due to graduate until 2021. Roughly 92% of those first year students were asked to return for some or all of this coming summer’s programme.

More than a third of firms said they had made early offers for their summer 2020 programmes, eight percentage points higher than last year. Those early offers were typically made to top candidates (79%) and diverse candidates (75%), the data showed.

Leipold said: “With overall law school enrolment having fallen considerably over this same period, the market for entry-level talent remains keen, with something of a race to market for so-called top talent and diverse talent driving the earliest offers ever earlier.”

While US law firms have been reporting robust financial results for 2019, Above the Law reported a flat year for end-of-year bonuses, a move interpreted as a sign firms are preparing for a market downturn.

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