LQ Local Legal Hiring Consistent

September 5, 2006
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Young lawyers are streaming into the area, and area firms such as Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt and Howlett and Warner Norcross and Judd are happy to hire them.

“There are at least six law schools just in the state of Michigan that are graduating hundreds of law students every year,” said Andy Kok, a partner at Varnum.

According to the National Association for Legal Career Professionals, there are 7,154 law students enrolled in the state’s six law schools for the 2006 academic year. That is a 19 percent rise since the 2004 school year, and is up 15 percent from the 2005 school year.

And that’s not counting the students who come to West Michigan from schools in Illinois and Indiana, such as Norte Dame.

“We get résumés and contacts from all of those places,” Kok said.

Many of the young lawyers at Varnum were hired as a result of the summer clerkship program, Kok said.

“The law students sign up for interviews on campus or they send résumés to the law firms. We maybe interview 50 or 60 students a year; then we have a summer program that involves 10 to 20 law students per summer,” he said.

Half of the summer clerks are first-year law students and half are second year. The students are sometimes hired by the firm, or may accept job offers from other firms.

“It’s competitive both ways,” he said. “They’re competing for summer jobs; then the law firms are competing to hire them, too.”

Kok said Varnum consistently hires five new attorneys annually.

“We probably, in the last couple of years, have been busier than normal, so we’re probably hiring a little more historically,” he said.

There have been staff increases in both the firm’s bankruptcy and finance areas, he said.

“Pretty much in every area we’re constantly looking to add on,” he said.

Some of the younger lawyers are lost to attrition, such as those who have left to work for various senators, the state attorney general or Meijer Inc.

“They’re all pretty mobile and they’re all constantly getting calls from other organizations,” he said.

When selecting new attorneys, Kok said Varnum looks not only at their legal skills, but also at their work ethic and personality.

“We here in Grand Rapids tend to see people that want a long career,” he said. “They’re kind of family-oriented; they want the West Michigan lifestyle.”

Mary Smit, director of attorney recruitment at Varnum, said she also sees young attorneys showing an interest in West Michigan.

“All the growth in Grand Rapids in the last five to 10 years has really helped us with recruiting,” she said.

Cathleen Meriwether, director of lawyer recruitment at Warner Norcross and Judd, said her firm’s hiring of new attorneys has stayed consistent at 10 per year.

“More people in the market are getting tired of large firms in large cities and the lack of lifestyle that those firms can afford them because of the huge billable hour requirements,” she said.

Meriwether said Warner has a unique system of determining what group a new lawyer will join. During the first year, new attorneys are allowed to work in as many different practice areas as they wish, before choosing the one that interests them most.

“We also allow them to change groups as they go through their careers,” she said.

With this system, Meriwether said it usually evens out, and no practice area is lacking.

“If an area of the firm, a particular practice of the firm, is particularly busy, they will look around and say ‘Where’s the need?’  — then join that group if it interests them,” she said. “The next year that group may not need additional people; they may be fully staffed. If you look over the years, it really evens out. We rarely have over-utilized or under-utilized attorneys.”

When there is a group that does need more members because of expansion, Meriwether said attorneys are usually hired through lateral moves.

Meriwether said Warner usually receives 2,000 applications a year.

“That has stayed pretty constant,” she said.

She said that when she considers candidates, she is eager to see leaders.

“We want to see leadership in people: Are they the kind of people that are going to be leaders in the firm, leaders in the community, leaders among their peers?” she said.

She also looks for a good work ethic and self-motivation.

“We look for team play,” Meriwether said. “We like people who will jump in and help out, who are willing to put other people’s needs first.”

One of the more interesting trends Meriwether said she has seen in new attorneys is the amount of women applying for positions.

“Certainly, law school classes are now 50/50; hiring should reflect that and ours has,” she said.

In fact, this year’s incoming hires include eight women and two men; three of the 10 are minorities.

“We certainly look for people who bring a unique or diverse perspective to the firm,” she said. “We don’t hire ‘types.’ We really want to be a diverse place in every way we can.”

Susan Guindi, assistant dean for career services at the University of Michigan, said students at the U-M law school are doing well in the legal market. The nearly 400 who graduated in the last academic year have looked for jobs throughout the country, she said.

“The legal market is very strong nationwide,” she said. “There’s high demand for new talent, and students are reaping that benefit.”     LQX

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