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With firms showing guarded gains in associate hiring for the summer of 2005, a still-tepid economic recovery is making them savvier in selecting law students. The strategy for deciding how many summer associates a firm will bring on board has changed in the last few years, observers say, as more firms are hiring students with specific projects or practice areas in mind. With tighter profit margins, firms are no longer bringing in big numbers of summer associates with plans to slot them in a practice group once they cut their teeth. Instead, many law firms have become more focused in their approach to hiring and are looking for candidates with special skill sets to meet demands they have right now. “Firms are definitely hiring to staff projects and to staff work,” said James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks law firm hiring. “They’re getting more strategic in all their hiring.” Numbers edging up NALP is expected to release the results of summer hiring in February, but preliminary information indicates that offers from law firms have increased a “wee bit,” while the rate of acceptance of those offers is down some, Leipold said. New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, for example, is hiring 184 associates for its 2005 program, compared with 164 students hired last year. On the West Coast, Latham & Watkins is bringing in 216 summer associates, compared with 164 last year. Morrison & Foerster is hiring 95 students for its associate program this summer, compared with 88 participants last year. But Atlanta-based King & Spalding will bring in 118 students for the summer, compared with 126 last year. International experience, whether it is the ability to speak a second language or even a background in studying abroad, is attractive to employers, say experts, as more firms open offices overseas and their clientele becomes more diverse. Previous professional experience, especially in business, also is appealing, in addition to any teaching or clerking experience. Coudert Brothers, for example, has 19 international offices, in cities such as London, Moscow, Hong Kong and Sydney, Australia, and it looks for people with a multicultural background. Sixteen candidates have accepted a summer associate position for this summer, said Dean Berry, chairman of the New York firm’s hiring committee. Coudert Brothers hired 21 students for its summer associate program last year. The firm, which in the past suffered from poor associate reviews regarding job satisfaction, revamped its summer associate selection process to help ensure that the firm and the candidates are a good match. “Overall, we’re trying to locate students who we think will be happy here and productive here. That’s not everybody,” said Berry. The firm now has a hiring committee composed of 10 associates and partners. Berry said that having a relatively large committee enables at least one person on the hiring committee and another member of the firm doing the interviewing to meet potential summer associates once they are short-listed after the initial interview, which is usually at the candidate’s law school or nearby. Having two attorneys meet the candidate helps at decision-making time, when they can bounce concerns and observations off each other, he said. Coudert Brothers and other firms say that they are increasingly looking for indicators to measure a candidate’s compatibility with their firms other than the usual factors, which include good grades, law review experience and moot court success. Asking the right questions, demonstrating observational skills and initiative, in addition to having specific talents that a project or a client may need, are the driving forces in the selection process, they say. At Palo Alto, Calif.-based Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, for example, candidates with technology experience get the firm’s attention, though it does not hire summer associates with specific projects in mind. “A lot of the projects we have will be finished by the time we hire the associate [full time],” said Wilson Sonsini partner Sara Harrington. “But we definitely look at people with technology experience who go to law school.” Fine-tuning the interview Reviewing a candidate’s pertinent information can be difficult in the few minutes allotted to meet with the candidates initially. Potential summer associates attending top schools may choose to meet with as many as 35 firms. Likewise, big law firms can interview hundreds of candidates before selecting just a few to fill their openings. Many schools devote several days to the process, and rent out space off campus to accommodate the interviews. “It’s massive. It’s huge,” said Ellen Wayne, dean of career services at Columbia Law School. In part to maximize the few precious minutes that partners initially have with potential associates, Morrison & Foerster has recently fine-tuned its interviewing technique, said Pamela Reed, a managing partner for operations at the firm. She said that attorneys who conduct interviews look for four specific attributes: demonstration of intellectual agility, effective communication, commitment and the ability to be a team player. “We’re interested in attitudes,” Reed said. Because of the dizzying pace of fall interviews, follow-up sessions become all the more important, said Berry of Coudert Brothers. It is at that point when interviewing attorneys can ask more pointed questions about past experiences, leadership roles or volunteer work. Law firms and schools generally follow interviewing guidelines established by NALP. Those guidelines pertain to how long law firms should keep their offers open, how long students have to consider those offers, general dates when the parties should make offers and acceptances, and more. The guidelines say that the parties should report any violations to the school’s career services office. Columbia’s Wayne said she has seen about a 20% increase in the number of openings for summer associate positions. Litigation remains a strong area, Wayne said, adding that many firms are looking for help in the corporate departments. Out West, Stanford Law School has experienced an uptick in interviews, said Susan Robinson, associate dean for career services, but she remains cautious. “I wouldn’t say we’re going gangbusters. We’re certainly not in boom-era hiring, but it’s approaching a more normal market,” she said. Robinson explained that more firms are hiring third-year students in their summer programs, which indicates that their demand has increased since they interviewed a particular class as first- or second-year students. She added that international experience and post-undergraduate work in business make for popular candidates. A strong need for business associates has prompted Bingham McCutchen to add a component to its program, but after it does the hiring. This year, Bingham has hired 72 summer associates, compared with 67 in 2004. Students who demonstrate an interest in transactional work are exposed to deal-making and other situations where “nobody is suing anybody,” said Daniel Jackson, attorney development manager at Bingham McCutchen. Many students say they want to practice business law, but they really don’t know what that means, Jackson said. Over a two-week period, summer associates who express an interest in business law sit in meetings involving corporate mergers, project finance, investment management, technology licensing and biotechnology. “It can be the bread and butter of the summer associate experience,” he said. Leigh Jones’ e-mail address is [email protected].

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