The good news for associates is that more of them made partner in 2008 compared with last year. The downside is that their firms also got bigger, making new partner growth a relative letdown.
A snapshot of 25 of the nation's largest law firms shows that they appointed 5.2 percent more of their attorneys to partner than they did in 2007. At the same time, however, those same firms grew by 6.6 percent, indicating that the boost in partnership promotions didn't keep pace with expansion overall.
The result is that relatively fewer associates and counsel moved up the law firm ladder.
Of the 25 firms, 12 of them increased their partner classes for 2008, and eight appointed fewer attorneys to partner. Four firms promoted the same number to partner this year as they did in 2007.
The 25 law firms tracked have their largest offices in a variety of U.S. cities and are among the largest 37 firms on the NLJ 250, The National Law Journal's annual ranking of the nation's biggest law firms by the number of attorneys.
The five law firms with the biggest percentage increases in partner class sizes were King & Spalding; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; Reed Smith; Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis; and O'Melveny & Myers.
Law firm consultant Richard Gary cautioned against making broad conclusions from the numbers, but he added that the figures could indicate a pullback among large firms in 2008.
"You can make the case, of course, that these numbers signal a slowdown and conservatism among the firms," said Gary, principal of Gary Advisors in Tiburon, Calif.
That conservative approach may stem from troubles experienced at a handful of other law firms, which recently have laid off attorneys due to fallout from the subprime mortgage mess.
Partner class size for 2008 was based on information that the law firms made public from Oct. 1, 2007 to Feb. 1, 2008. Law firm size was based on census information collected from the NLJ 250 survey, which reported those numbers as of Sept. 30, 2007.
For 2008, the 25 law firms appointed a total of 662 attorneys to partner, which included both equity and nonequity partners. In 2007, those same firms appointed 629 attorneys to partner. It is important to note that percentage increases and decreases in partner classes can seem large because of the typically small number of appointments each year.
The total number of attorneys working at the 25 firms was 36,280, compared with 34,049 the year before.
This year's 5.2 percent partner class growth was slightly higher than last year's, when the partner class increased by 5.1 percent, based on numbers from 20 of the nation's largest firms. The 25 firms in this year's group included all 20 law firms tracked in 2007.
Several law firms had notable differences between the size of the partner classes this year and the overall growth of their firms. For example, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe appointed 15 to partner for 2008, compared with 20 in 2007. Meanwhile, the firm grew by 4.4 percent, from 924 attorneys to 965.
White & Case appointed 31 attorneys to partner effective this year, compared with 37 last year. The firm expanded by 9.1 percent, from 1,907 attorneys to 2,080. Dechert's partner class dropped to nine from 13, while its firm grew slightly, from 994 to 1,001 attorneys.
Despite the roller-coaster results at some law firms, the percentage of appointments to partner tends to remain fairly constant, said William Henderson, a professor at Indiana University School of Law -- Bloomington. His scholarship focuses on empirical analysis of the legal profession and legal education.
What has changed over the years, he said, are the differences between appointments to equity partner versus nonequity partner. Firms are not only reducing the number of equity partner appointments and, conversely, boosting nonequity promotions, but also becoming more tightlipped to the public and to their own attorneys about the distinctions.
"Generally, if they're not disclosing, they have a lot of nonequity partners," Henderson said.
Almost all of the law firms in this year's group of 25 did not distinguish whether their promotions were to equity or nonequity partner, even though most of them have both kinds of partners. Fourteen of them have two-tiered partnerships, six have single-tier systems and four do not disclose whether they have tiers.
The biggest decline in the 2008 partner class size was at Holland & Knight, which appointed 18 partners this year, compared with 35 in 2007. The firm grew by 3.5 percent, from 1,102 to 1,141 attorneys.
The drop in the number of partner appointments was not a result of a concerted effort to reduce the class size, said Holland & Knight recruiting partner Adolfo Jimenez.
Last year, the firm changed the number of years of experience required to make partner from seven to eight, Jimenez said, which likely had an effect. He added that partner class sizes can "fluctuate a lot" from year to year. Indeed, last year's class of 35 was 25 percent bigger than previous year.
Two firms had declines in both the number of partners appointed and their overall census. Baker & McKenzie's North American office appointed 12 partners for 2008, compared with 19 last year. The firm dropped from 3,535 attorneys to 3,335, a decline that bumped it out of the No. 1 spot on the NLJ 250 for the first time ever. DLA Piper took that position in the latest ranking.
Fulbright & Jaworski also decreased in both partner class size and firm size. It appointed 11 attorneys to partners effective this year, compared with 13 in 2007, and fell to 955 from 972 attorneys firmwide.
King & Spalding, the law firm with the biggest partner expansion at 66.7 percent, appointed 20 attorneys to partner compared with 12 last year. The growth stemmed from a large group of lawyers who were both "high performing and collegial," said firm Chairman Robert Hays, in an e-mail message. Most of the promotions were in the litigation practice areas of business, tort and environmental law.
Despite the increase, King & Spalding's census declined a bit, to 814 from 825 attorneys.