Credit: Razzi Abuissa

Though last year was one of the worst years in recent memory for law school graduates, Pennsylvania-based law firms have stepped up their hiring this year.

According to a survey conducted by The Legal Intelligencer — the nation’s oldest law journal — firms in the state hired 20.5 percent more first-year associates nationwide in 2012 than in 2011, and 10.6 percent more in Pennsylvania.

The survey, released in September, indicated that Penn Law School had the largest number of graduates working as first-year associates in Pennsylvania-based law firms, with 26 out of 136 total.

Other represented schools include Temple University Beasley School of Law with 16 associates, Villanova University School of Law with 15 and Rutgers University School of Law-Camden with 13.

Some firms have also increased the salaries of first-year associates. The average salary rose from $127,000 in 2011 to $129,250 in 2012 — a 1.8-percent increase, according to the survey.

In 2011, the employment rate for first-year law graduates was the lowest since 1994, according to National Association for Law Placement statistics.

“Even in a tough job market, the number of our graduates beginning their careers at Philadelphia firms has remained steady over the last five years, at approximately 25-30 students per year,” Mariel Staszewski of Penn Law’s Office of Career Planning and Professionalism said in an email.

“Ninety-five percent or more of our graduates of the classes of 2008-2011 were employed nine months after graduation,” she added.

“I have nothing but the highest praise for the CP&P department,” said Anthony Crawford, a 2012 Penn Law graduate currently working at Reed Smith, a Pittsburgh-based international law firm. According to the Legal Intelligencer survey, all first-year Reed Smith associates had a starting salary of $130,000.

“They have a very thankless job,” he added.

Katie Beran graduated from Penn Law in 2012 and was immediately hired by Cozen O’Connor, a Philadelphia-based international law firm where she had interned as a summer associate in 2011. Associates at the firm have a starting salary of $135,000.

“[The Class of 2011] had a harder time I think in the job market, but it got a lot better for my year,” she said.

But she added that Penn students did not feel the recession as sharply as others. “Penn was very insulated in a way; I think a lot of people just felt very fortunate because of that.”

According to Gina Passarella, the Legal Intelligencer reporter who wrote about the survey, the recession may be contributing to the large number of Penn graduates entering Pennsylvania law firms.

“Along with students in a tough economy having to broaden their search,” she said, law firms “can be more competitive about who they are looking at … and they’re often getting the best people because of that.”

Before the recession, she added, law firms would regularly increase the starting salary of new employees. Now, it is “a little bit back to the same again.”

Beran has experienced this trend first-hand. “In the Philly job market I think there are some firms that are expanding in spite of the economy,” she said. “It’s the case at Cozen.”

Even more optimistic, Crawford said, “I think that those numbers show that the legal industry is getting better.”

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