Hot market for U.S. law firm associates cooled in 2022, report shows

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  • Lateral partner moves increased nearly 6% while demand for associates fell off significantly
  • Firms of 250 or fewer lawyers also bolstered lateral hiring

(Reuters) - The U.S. law firm hiring churn slowed significantly in 2022 after a supercharged 2021, at least for more junior lawyers at the biggest firms, according to new data from the National Association for Law placement (NALP).

Lawyer moves between firms — known as lateral hiring — decreased nearly 12% overall in 2022 on the heels of a 111% increase the previous year. The decline was driven by a major dropoff in demand for associates, NALP found in its annual lateral report, released Wednesday.

The number of lateral associate moves fell 20% last year as compared to 2021, when an explosion of corporate deals pushed demand for legal services to record highs and prompted firms to increase associate hires by a whopping 149%.

By contrast, lateral partner hiring increased nearly 6% in 2022 and hiring of lawyers who fall outside the ranks of either partners or associates increased almost 10%, NALP said.

Sustained demand for lateral partners suggests that firms are looking to combat decreased billable hours with new books of business, NALP executive director Nikia Gray said in the report.

“The fact that the 2022 lateral hiring market cooled from its red-hot state in 2021 is not surprising,” Gray added. “Last year was a progressively challenging year for law firms, with many closing out the year down in profits and over-leveraged on talent.”

The decline in lateral activity was particularly pronounced in New York and Boston, where competition for lawyers was especially stiff during the 2021 boom in demand for legal services.

But the overall lateral numbers don’t tell the whole story. While the largest firms saw the biggest decrease in lateral hiring, firms with fewer than 250 lawyers increased lateral hiring across the board, NALP found. Associate lateral moves were up nearly 12% among those small and midsized firms, while partner moves increased 56%.

“These smaller firms appeared to have capitalized on the lack of positions at larger firms to acquire new talent,” said Gray, noting that smaller firms struggled to compete during the 2021 lateral hiring frenzy.

Read more:

U.S. lawyers swapped firms at record pace in 2021, report finds

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Reporting by Karen Sloan

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at