Law Firms

Staff cutbacks hit law firms' professional development departments

Attorney ranks aren't the only thing that shrank at many law firms between 2008 and 2010.

More than half of law firm recruiting and professional development departments -- 51 percent -- lost staffers as a result of job cuts during that period, according to a new survey by the National Association for Law Placement. NALP queried professional development departments at 100 different law firms, and nearly 53 percent said their budgets decreased by 10 percent or more. Just 12 percent of the respondents said that their department had added staff in the past two years.

"Over the past 10 or 15 years, we've seen many firms set up professional development departments," said Altman Weil consultant James Wilber. "Unfortunately, it's the 'extra' things like this that firms look at first when they want to cut costs."

Wilber said firms need the right balance between saving money and continuing to invest in their futures through recruiting and professional development. For instance, firms that stopped recruiting altogether for several years in the early 1990s saw their reputations suffer, he said.

The NALP survey did not specifically link the cutbacks to the recession, but the report found that it's a reasonable assumption that the job cuts and budgets reductions were primarily driven by the lagging economy.

The survey was the first time NALP has looked specifically at changes in recruiting and professional development departments, said research director Judith Collins.

"This was something our members had asked us about: What were the effects of the recession over the past couple of years?" she said. "Have there been cutbacks and budget cuts?"

The answer, NALP now knows, is yes. More than a quarter of responding departments lost more than two people, according to the survey. Firms with 250 or more attorneys saw the biggest headcount cuts within their recruiting and professional development departments. Of the departments surveyed, 91 percent said duties had been added.

"In general, people are having to do more than one thing," Collins said. "There seems to be quite a lot of reorganization going on."

The departments at the center of the survey handle a wide range of activities, including diversity initiatives recruiting, mentoring, associate life issues, performance evaluations, deferral programs, conflicts checks, event planning, alumni relations and pro bono work, among other things.

One explanation for the cuts cited by respondents is that law firm summer classes have generally been smaller in recent years. Earlier NALP research showed that the median summer class for 2010 at firms of all sizes was seven students, down dramatically from the median of 15 in the summer of 2008. Collins noted that some survey respondents said that smaller summer classes had reduced the workload on recruiting and professional development departments.

"I'd say that law firms probably have cut back more than they will think they should have in five years, but hindsight is 20/20," Wilber said.

(Published by – October 26, 2010)

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