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The nation's biggest law firms shed record number of lawyers

By coincidence, I spent some time recently sitting next to a brand spankin' new lawyer. He was fresh out of the University of Florida law school, and the University of Central Florida before that.

He was finishing his first week at the Tampa-based Carlton Fields law firm as the newest member of its white-collar crime division, where lawyers mostly defend people and businesses against claims of fraud or embezzlement or bribery or some similar type of alleged wrongdoing.

The new lawyer was a lucky young man (and he knew it). Many major law firms are taking it on the chin in this recession and downsizing dramatically. Apparently, he had picked his employer well. Carlton Fields, the largest law firm with headquarters in the Tampa Bay area, added lawyers to its staff this year as many other firms slashed their ranks.

The National Law Journal, which tracks law firm jobs each year, on Monday reported the biggest drop ever in total employment at the nation's 250 largest law firms. The total number of attorneys for the group declined by 4 percent this year, from 131,928 in 2008 to 126,669 in 2009.

That means the total number of attorneys working at the top 250 law firms fell by 5,259. This is only the third time that attorney totals have declined since the law journal started tracking law firm numbers in 1978.

Okay, so this is the natural spot in a column about lawyer layoffs to get an obligatory joke out of the way.

"You're a high-priced lawyer! If I give you $500, will you answer two questions for me?" "Sure," says the attorney. "What's the second question?"

Moving on … news that any major law firm lost more than a quarter of its attorneys would typically shock the legal world. But not so much these days. New York firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson had the largest percentage head count decline among the biggest 250 U.S. firms, dropping 168 attorneys — 26 percent — between October 2008 and October 2009. Here's a sampler of area firms and how they fared this past year, according to the National Law Journal:

• Carlton Fields, Tampa's largest, gained three attorneys, bringing its total to 277. It ranks 154th in the top 250.

• Tampa's Fowler White Boggs ranked No. 211 in 2008 with 201 attorneys but fell off this year's list. Last year, the firm's insurance defense practice broke away because of potential conflicts of interest. And last week, about 10 business lawyers led by Burton Wiand left to form their own firm, leaving Fowler White with fewer than 130 attorneys.

• Miami's Akerman Senterfitt, which has more than 40 lawyers in Tampa, increased its size by 20 attorneys.

• New York's Greenberg Traurig, the country's eighth-largest law firm, with about two dozen attorneys in Tampa, shed 56 lawyers.

• Holland & Knight, the 19th-largest law firm — with about 65 attorneys in Tampa Bay — lost 92 legal positions this past year.

• Gray Robinson of Orlando, with more than 40 attorneys in Tampa, added 22 lawyers this past year. It now ranks 178th.

They say this is a good time to be a client. Survival-driven law firms are more fee-conscious and willing to cut deals to keep customers.

This law climate won't last. So live it up while you can.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

The nation's biggest law firms shed record number of lawyers 11/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 6:14pm]
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