Overall lateral hiring plummets in 2020, especially associates

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lateral hiring fell by more than 30% overall in 2020, driven in large part by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This steep fall-off in 2020 was experienced across all firm sizes, regions, and cities included in NALP’s analysis of the Survey of Legal Employers on Recruiting from 2020-21, although some offices saw larger decreases than others. This is the largest decline in lateral hiring since the peak of the Great Recession in 2009 when lateral hiring was down by 52%. NALP’s 2020 analyses cover aggregate hiring information on more than 4,500 lateral lawyers in 388 offices/firms.

The overall volume of hiring was down 30.2% compared with 2019 in these same offices/firms, with a median of 5.0 and an average of 11.7 lateral hires per office/firm. Partner lateral hiring fell by 23.5% in 2020, while associate lateral hiring experienced a sharper decline of 33.3%.

The average number of lateral associates hired per office/firm in 2020 was approximately 7 associates and the median was 3 associates compared to an average of about 2 and a median of 1 for lateral partner hires. Lateral associate hiring accounted for 62.0% of lateral hiring in 2020 and lateral partner hiring accounted for 20.7%. Other lateral hiring comprised 17.3% of lateral hiring in 2020.

Among employers reporting activity for a single office, offices averaged from 0.9 to 1.5 lateral partner hires depending on firm size, whereas associate lateral hiring averages ranged from 3.1 to 4.4 per office. While lateral hiring was down across the board, offices in firms of more than 700 lawyers experienced the largest drop in lateral hiring (-32.8%) while offices in firms of 501-700 lawyers had the smallest declines (-10.8%).

On a regional basis, the level of lateral hiring per office was highest in the Northeast, with a median of 6.5 and an average of 11.5 lateral hires in 2020, compared with medians of 3.0 to 4.5 in all other regions and averages that ranged from approximately 4 to 7 lateral hires. However, in terms of aggregate volume change, volume was down the most in the West/Rocky Mountain region (-34.7%) and down the least in the Northeast (-20.8%). The median number of lateral hires was highest in New York City and the Washington, DC/Northern VA area, where the median was 8 lateral hires in both locations.

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