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With the economy still mired in the doldrums, most law firms in the Washington metropolitan area are trying to keep the lid on summer associate hiring. Many hiring partners say that their summer ranks are little changed from a year ago, and the slight ups and downs they do report are attributed more to fluctuations in acceptance rates than to cutbacks. But a few firms — notably Arnold & Porter and Hogan & Hartson — are ratcheting back to compensate for hiring too many summer associates in the previous two years. “We are coming off of two very large years, so we scaled back,” says James Sandman, managing partner at Arnold & Porter. The firm has 46 summer associates this year, a dramatic drop from the 80 associates the firm employed in the summer of 2001 and an 18 percent decline from the 56 it had last summer. Sandman says the firm didn’t want more than about 50 associates in either of the previous summers. What happened, he says, is that the firm’s acceptance rate from law students shot up after the economy started to sour in 2000 and the job market tightened. Hogan & Hartson reports a similar experience. The firm has 26 summer associates this year, which is down 38 percent from the 42 it employed last summer and less than half of the 68 it brought on at its high point in the summer of 2001. Without paring the program, Hogan risked not having enough permanent jobs to offer its successful summer hires, a situation that would have pitted them against one another for permanent slots. “We want to be able to continue our tradition of not creating a competitive situation among our summer associates for jobs,” says litigation partner Robert Duncan, chairman of the firm’s recruitment committee. “We got very conservative about offers.” Duncan says this summer’s class is slightly smaller than the firm had hoped for, while last year’s was bigger. “But now we are in the nice position of being able to give offers to everyone instead of being jammed up,” he says. Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering has ended up with larger classes than it intended for the last couple of years because of rising acceptance rates, according to David Donovan, chairman of the hiring committee. The firm has 60 summer associates this year, compared with 55 a year ago, and would have preferred class sizes in the mid-40s, he says. “Our goal has been essentially constant over the last few years,” Donovan says, adding that Wilmer undershot its target in 2001 with 39 associates and this year overshot. “Our acceptance rate at some schools was 100 percent,” he says. “We can certainly handle this many people,” says Donovan, noting that Wilmer’s first-year hiring needs exceed the size of the summer class. GUESSING GAME Estimating the acceptance rate for summer programs is never easy, and gets nerve-racking when the economy fluctuates. The hiring partner at one large D.C. firm, who requested anonymity, says the acceptance rate jumped from 35 percent to 60 percent at his firm in the late 1990s, meaning the firm had to absorb a big class or damage its reputation at law schools. “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you,” says Wiley Rein & Fielding’s Irena McGrath, borrowing a quip from a hiring partner she used to work with. “In the final analysis, you just don’t know,” says McGrath, who heads recruiting at the firm. Wiley Rein, known for its telecommunications practice, has 25 summer associates this year, compared with 18 last summer. McGrath attributes the rise to a flatteringly higher acceptance rate, and says the firm is “very busy” and needs the added help. “I like to think that students think we are a good firm,” she says, adding, “I also think that Washington was a hot city this year. It is slightly more recession-proof than other cities.” The D.C. office of Houston’s Baker Botts has had a similar experience to Wiley Rein’s. Last year, it had 10 summer associates, while this year it has 16, says Jennifer Zukowski, manager of attorney employment and development. “Ideally, we’d like to have 15 each year,” she says. This year’s class is bigger because strong interest in the firm’s trial department boosted the acceptance rate, Zukowski says. Baker Botts has plenty of trial work as a result of its merger in 2001 with D.C. litigation firm Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin. ‘PROPRIETARY’ INFORMATION Law firms don’t reveal their acceptance rates, treating it as proprietary information, along with the cost of their summer programs. But two recent surveys by the D.C.-based NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education shed some light on both acceptance rates and costs. Last year, the average acceptance rate for summer associate positions at Washington area firms was 29 percent, according to the NALP Foundation, which got responses from 38 Washington law offices. That compared with a national average of 41 percent in 2002. The acceptance rate was lowest — 25 percent — at the 33 New York offices in the survey. The national acceptance rate has risen more sharply than the Washington rate has, according to the foundation’s past surveys. In 1999, for example, the national acceptance rate was 29 percent, while Washington’s rate was 24 percent. The cost of these programs has long been secret. “Firms simply won’t give it up,” says Paula Patton, chief executive and president of the NALP Foundation. “It is part of their marketing strategy and really considered very proprietary,” she says. The single largest cost is pay. Salaries ranged from $1,300 a week up to $2,400, according to a recent survey that the NALP Foundation did on summer spending in 2002. In other words, a 10-week program with 25 summer associates costs $325,000 to $600,000 in salaries alone. The survey asked firms to lump their other summer costs — exclusive of salaries — into one of five broad budget categories starting with less than $25,000 and topping out at more than $200,000. Just 9 percent of the 277 firms responding reported spending more than $200,000, and nearly all of those firms had more than 100 lawyers. Many firms — 38 percent — reported spending less than $25,000 on their summer programs. Another 24 percent said they spent between $25,001 and $50,000. Nearly 40 percent of the firms said they spent 60 percent or more of their budgets on social activities and meals. Interestingly, the majority of firms said they had not cut their summer budgets between 2001 and 2002, despite the worsening economy. NOT THIS YEAR A couple of local law offices have decided to forgo the summer associate program this year. The D.C. offices of Los Angeles’ Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and Cleveland’s Squire, Sanders & Dempsey say they have taken a pass this time. “We decided to focus on lateral hiring,” says Charles Donley, a partner at Squire Sanders. The firm has about 60 lawyers in Washington and has never had a big summer program here, says Donley. Last year, the firm had three summer associates and has never had more than 10. “In the current economic circumstances, I don’t see how we would hurt our reputation [at law schools] by suspending the program for a year,” Donley says. Manatt Phelps, which has about 40 lawyers here and has had small summer classes in past year, says it doesn’t need first-year lawyers. “The hiring market is good. We could hire a third-year,” says partner Stephen Neal Jr. He says the firm has not yet decided whether to renew the program next year. LOOKING FOR NO. 1 At Covington & Burling, acceptance rates were up, but the firm held the class size to 50. “We really like to have it at 50,” says hiring partner Mark Plotkin. Last summer, Covington had 52 summer associates; in 2001 it had about 54; and in 2000 there were about 60, says Plotkin. He attributes some of the higher student interest in the firm to the fact that Washington tends to weather down markets better than most cities because of the tremendous amount of regulatory work generated by the federal government. In tight times, he says, there is a “flight to firms of long standing and quality.” In addition, Covington has gone off the beaten path in search of top law students, interviewing at such schools as Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School in Provo, Utah; Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va.; and Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville. “We are looking for the number one person, and to rise to the top of those schools you’ve got to be incredibly smart,” Plotkin says. “Among our top performers in the last several summers are the Brigham Young students.” While Covington is willing to break from the pack in recruiting, it continues to run a very traditional, even old-fashioned, law practice. Associates still spend their first four years or so rotating through several practice areas before settling on a specialty. Covington believes that the cross-training is valuable for both the lawyers and the firm, especially in lean times when versatility is an asset. As a consequence, the firm invests a lot of time, money, and effort in finding summer associates bright enough to master more than one field of law. “Summer associates are virtually our entire entering class,” Plotkin says. “The key to [cross-training] is you need the most talented people to keep up with more than one practice area.” Claudia MacLachlan is a free-lance writer in Washington and a frequent contributor to Legal Times.

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