If the first 3 months of 2012 have shown us anything, it’s that employment in the legal sector continues to fluctuate. Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that positive gains of 1,000 jobs in January and 800 in February were followed by a sharp decline of 1,300 in March. Overall, net gain for the year remains positive at 500 jobs gained, but the notable dip in March is reason for pause. The jolt threatens what had the makings of a slight rebound from the second half of 2011, where 1,000 jobs were added between July and December (despite significant month-month fluctuations).

Overall, 3,600 jobs have been added since February of last year. The increases of 1,000 in January and 800 in February were the industry’s largest since July of last year, when 4,100 jobs were added.

In terms of how this fits in with employment numbers in the overall economy, reactions are mixed. On the one hand, unemployment has hit a 3-year low at 8.2%, down from 8.3% in January and February and 8.5% in December. Even so, experts had hoped to see more of an increase in March jobs than they did. 120,000 were added, but it was a sign of slowed growth compared to December, January, and February, which all saw more than 200,000 jobs gained.

The sustained month-to-month fluctuations indicate that many firms are still caught in hiring freezes, particularly of young associates. With continued low summer associate hiring and patterns of decreased law school applications and LSAT takers, all signs point to lateral movements and merger talks as firms’ favored approach for growth as the economy continues to recover.