The coveted summer associate position has become even harder to attain in Massachusetts, since many large firms have decreased the size of their programs this year.
"The recession has definitely hit the legal-employment market in a relatively dramatic way," said Betsy Armour, director of the Boston University Law School Career Development Office.
On-campus recruitment activity for Fall 2001 in the Northeast dropped as much as 12 percent for 70 percent of the region's schools, according to the National Association for Law Placement, compared to 80 percent of mid-Atlantic-based schools and 71 percent of those in the Southeast. NALP sets standards for interviewing, the timing of law firm offers and deadlines for the decision-making process.
Paul Carey of Worcester's Mirick, O'Connell, DeMallie & Lougee noticed a change in on-campus interviews last fall. Students seemed more interested in bankruptcy, litigation, labor-and-employment law instead of corporations, IPOs and the Internet, he said.
"It shows students are reading the papers and adjusting their searches accordingly," said Carey, whose firm hired two summer clerks for 2002.
According to BU's Armour, larger firms anticipate their hiring needs one to two years in advance. So, despite signs of an economic recovery, fewer jobs are available this year - and competition is keener. As a result, second-year Boston University law students (2Ls) have been landing summer positions that traditionally would have gone to first years (1Ls).
"Law firms are hiring in a conservative fashion so as not to overextend themselves," Amour said. "Opportunities are pinched even with small and medium-sized firms and government jobs. There is a squeeze across the board."
William Lee, managing partner at Hale & Dorr, said his firm's summer program was depleted in 2001 from 60 to 45 summer associates. This season, it was cut back to 40 summer positions.
"In October 2000, we started to guess what was going to happen with the economy," Lee said, explaining the two-year drop.
Nutter, McClennen & Fish, a large firm in Boston, also has reduced the size of its summer program due to the economy, according to Suzanne Glassburn, chair of the firm's Hiring Committee.
"We are looking for 12 to 14 [associates] this year instead of 16 to 18. We decided it was prudent to reduce the size of the class," Glassburn said.
Suffolk University Law School Career Development Director James B. Whitters III is concerned about the fewer options for students.
"Our best students didn't get as many offers. Those in the eighth percentile got one or two offers instead of five, and those in the twelfth percentile didn't get any," he said.
And for those students who do get hired there's an additional wrinkle to confront: landing a summer associate position no longer guarantees a full-time position later on.
According to BU's Armour, firms have started hiring more lateral than entry-level attorneys, a phenomenon that occurred in the 1990s.
"It's a perpetual Catch-22. If no one is committed to hiring junior associates, there won't be any laterals later on," she said. "I've been hearing recently across the United State that lateral hiring is catching on, an old pattern that is raising its ugly head."
Consequently, Amour has been coaching law students to be consciously aware of their work performance and their demeanor on the job.
"We warn them upfront to keep the momentum throughout the summer," Amour said. "The bar is higher for students this summer due to the retrenchment this past fall. Not only do they have to do good work, but there has to a right personality fit."