Because summer associate posts typically translate to job offers, the shrunken class sizes reflect firms' concerns about future demand for legal services, Leipold said.
Law firms made similar cuts to their summer programs after previous recessions. But this time, the downturn is not the only culprit, said law professor William Henderson, noting that the number of people employed in the legal sector peaked in 2004 and has been falling ever since. Outsourcing and automation have eliminated much of the work that new associates did in the first place, he added.
"It's a perfect storm to sabotage entry-level hiring," said Henderson, who directs the Center on the Global Legal Profession at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law. "It came back before, but I just don't think that'll happen this time around."
A SILVER LINING
The legal marketplace may be in turmoil, but there's always a silver lining -- at least for hiring partners. With fewer spots to fill, firms can confine their searches to the top students at the top law schools.
"It's definitely a buyer's market right now," said partner Jahmal Davis, who manages recruitment for Hanson Bridgett, which hired three associates for next summer, down from eight in 2007.
Since the recession, Orrick has aggressively pursued clerks in the Supreme Court and the circuit courts, said partner Stephen Venuto, who handles on-campus recruitment for the firm. Those candidates now make up about a quarter of the firm's new hires.
"Clerks can command respect right away," Venuto said.
Not only can firms afford to be more selective, they need to be: Students today are more likely to accept an offer -- and more likely to stick around for years.
"We're hiring for keeps the first time," said Hanson Bridgett's Davis.