Law firm lawyer recruitment is a year-round effort and encompasses lateral hiring at the associate and partner level as well as student recruitment for summer program and entry-level classes. Different goals take priority at various times of the year, so knowledge of what goes on inside law firms can help lateral candidates either time their approaches for maximum effectiveness, or at least understand the competing demands on hiring partners, hiring committees, and recruiting staff.
You may not have a choice regarding your job search timing, however, if your firm closes or loses partners, or if an irresolvable client conflict occurs. Moreover, many lawyers consider personal factors such as staying for a year-end bonus or, if considering relocation, waiting for their children to get out of school on vacation. While those are valid considerations, you also should know what is going on from the perspective of law firms’ recruiting schedules.
The following is a typical large law firm recruiting calendar:
Most law firms complete their annual budgeting process at the beginning of each year. Firm management makes projections for the upcoming year regarding recruiting budgets and head count. They set start dates for fall and summer associate classes, and allocate funds for salaries, travel, social events, and receptions. Similarly, various practice groups within the firm assess their hiring needs for both partners and experienced associates and set the lateral hiring budget, including headhunter fees, candidate travel expenses, and relocation costs. The firm estimates any necessary office build-out and additional staffing costs, as well.
Consequently, in mid to late January, large law firms begin contacting their preferred legal search firms with a list of lateral hiring needs for immediate and long-term growth. At many firms the assessment of lateral hiring needs continues throughout the year, but at others, once they exhaust the allocated funds, lateral hiring must stop for the year.
Most law firms pay bonuses for the past year and establish new compensation levels in January or early February. Thus, many lawyers decide whether to stay or start a new job search early in the year, depending upon the outcome of the bonus and salary decisions. As these lawyers start making their moves, additional positions open up at their former firms, and the lateral recruiting market becomes more fluid.
February and March
As a general rule, lateral hiring interviewing is more intense during these months than at any other time of the year.
In February, firms must complete and submit their “NALP Forms” for inclusion in the next edition of the NALP Directory of Legal Employers, published at www.nalpdirectory.com. The NALP forms contain all sorts of valuable information for the job seeker regarding the firm, including numbers of lawyers at various levels and in which areas of practice, how many students it hires for summer and entry-level classes, how many make partner, diversity breakdowns, billable hours, benefits, and so forth. While firms can edit some of the information to the online edition throughout the year, numbers regarding population and demographics are frozen at the February deadline, for purposes of comparison from year to year.
Also by February, firms determine at which schools to recruit for their summer and first-year associate classes. This is when they reserve on-campus recruiting dates at the target law schools, and begin planning for the summer associate program.
Law firm recruitment administrators and law school career services directors from across the US and Canada meet for the annual NALP conference for a week in April. Therefore, if your résumé is received or you’re in the midst of the interviewing process at this time, there may be a delay in response time or scheduling. Lateral hiring decisions and interviews continue throughout this month, however, and arrangements for the summer program are completed since the students arrive at the firm mid-May.
May, June, and July
During these months, the summer associate program is the top priority for many large firms. In May, orienting the students, assigning them to supervisors, and mentors, as well as providing them with useful and meaningful work while wining, dining, and partying, occupies most of the time and attention of the recruitment staff and many lawyers. Management of the summer associates’ workflow, training, evaluation, and social events continues throughout June and July.
At the same time, law firms make final arrangements for fall recruiting. They determine hiring goals for summer and fall classes, select and train interviewers, and plan any on-campus receptions. Lateral hiring moves along, as necessary, depending upon the specific staffing needs of the firm.
There’s a flurry of activity in the first half of the month. Most summer associates return to school in mid-August, and firms must wind up their summer programs with exit interviews, evaluations, and decisions regarding whether or not to extend offers of full-time employment after graduation to each of their summer associates. Immediately thereafter, the firm’s attention turns to on-campus recruiting, which begins in early August at some schools and extends through the beginning of September. Because a number of lawyers on law firm recruitment committees either take vacation in August, or participate in on-campus interviewing, they’re not as available for other candidate interviews. Consequently, lateral hiring slows this month.
The first-year class of associates traditionally starts after Labor Day at most large law firms. In the depths of previous recessions, however, some firms deferred their start dates to later in the fall, or even as late as January or early the following spring. By doing so, those firms saved significant amounts of money on salaries and staffing costs. As the economy improved, start dates pretty consistently returned to September. Orientation and training begins right away and continues through October.
Summer associates who received offers for full-time employment to begin the following fall have until November 1 to accept or decline offers according to the NALP “Principles & Standards for Law Placement and Recruitment Activities,” but responses typically begin coming in by September. As firms begin to gauge their offer acceptance rates, they determine how many third-year students they must interview to fill their first-year associate class for the next fall, even as they continue interviewing second-year students for the upcoming summer program.
Fall season on-campus interviewing concludes in September and many of the larger firms finish by the middle of the month. Students then visit law firms for callbacks, more in-depth interviews, throughout September. The larger firms, especially, aim to have their callback interviews completed by the end of the month.
Lateral hiring slows down for some firms as the third quarter ends. Recruiting attention is on law students primarily, and budgeted funds for lateral recruitment may be running low. Also, especially with partner-level candidates, firms usually don’t consider it economical to bring in new lateral hires late in the year. It takes three to six months for revenues generated by these new partners to start flowing into the firm to offset expenses. This final reason became increasingly important as profits-per-partner figures published in the legal press gained importance as a way to rank law firms. Note, however, that for any partner with a large portable book of business, almost any time is a good time to look!
October and November
For those firms still in the throes of fall entry-level recruitment, callback interviews must be completed by Halloween. At many large law firms, the recruitment committee meets weekly to evaluate candidates. They make offers by November 1 to second-year law students as prospective summer associates and then to third-year students as prospective entry-level associates for the following fall. The students have 28 days to respond to the offers. The objective is generally for all offers to be accepted or rejected by December 31, the official end of the fall recruiting season for large law firms.
On December 1, first-year law students are “released” for recruiting purposes; their first round of exams are done and grades are in. Until that time, they’re “off limits” for purposes of law firm recruitment according to ethical guidelines developed by NALP. If a firm didn’t yield enough second-year students to fill its summer program, it can begin recruiting first-year law students to meet its quota. During slow economic times, however, second-year students scramble for jobs and there are few, if any, vacancies left at large law firms for first-year students.
Although the holiday season presents some scheduling issues, contrary to popular belief, it’s a good time for a job search. Lateral recruiting revs up again in December in preparation for the New Year as firms interview candidates to begin employment in January. The last few months of the year are especially good times for senior- or partner-level candidates to begin a search. The hiring process at that level usually takes a while, and this timing allows them to collect their share of the profits and disbursements at their old firms and start new employment early the next year.
The preceding recruiting calendar is relevant only for law firms that participate in on-campus recruiting for summer associates and entry-level classes. Those are the larger firms, for the most part. For smaller firms, small offices of larger firms, and those that only hire laterally, similar economic, budgeting, forecasting, and vacation considerations usually apply. For these firms, however, their actual hiring schedules have much more to do with lawyer departures, workflow, and client needs. If you’re targeting such firms, rely upon your own research and networking to determine the best timing for an approach on a case-by-case basis.