As associate hiring spiked in 2021, how many new hires left within the first year?

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Associate hiring and attrition spiked last year, leading to “boomerang” hiring and a greater percentage of associates leaving within one year, according to a survey of law firms released last week by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education.

The survey found that participating law firms hired 7,278 associates in 2021, compared to 2,772 in 2020 and 4,956 in 2013. Fifty-three percent of 2021 associate hires were lateral.

At the same time, participating firms saw “a substantial increase” in associate departures, the survey found. The number was 4,503 during 2021, 2,876 in 2020 and 3,419 in 2019. The associate attrition rate was 26% in 2021, compared to 16% in 2020. It was the highest attrition rate since the survey began in 2006.

The attrition rate for associates of color was even higher. It was 34% in 2021, compared to 18% in 2020.

Tenure was short for some of those incoming associates. The percentage of associates who left within the first year of hiring was 8% overall. The breakdown: Ten percent of lateral associates and 6% of entry-level associates joined and left their firms in 2021.

The survey noted a “boomerang” effect in hiring. Ten percent of all associates hired in 2021 had previously worked at their incoming firm. Fifty-five percent of the firms reported rehiring at least one former associate in 2021. The phenomenon was more prevalent at larger firms.

The most frequently cited reasons for associate departures in 2021 were the pursuit of specific practice interests (19%), a career change to another type of legal job (17%), better compensation (12%), and a desire for a new geographic location (10%).

The survey is based on data from 125 law firms across the United States and Canada. Participating firms were member firms and contacts of the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education and the National Association for Law Placement, or they were recruited through outreach to bar associations and public invitations to participate.

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