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Silicon Valley law firms sent more students back to campus without jobs this year than at any time since the beginning of the technology boom four years ago. Nearly 17 percent of the summer associates at the six largest technology firms did not receive offers — a far cry from last year when just 7 percent went home empty-handed. The reason? To hear some Valley lawyers tell it, law schools shipped out a bum crop of students this summer. But law school career specialists and even some Silicon Valley partners say the reason has a lot more to do with a bad economy than poor performance by students. Whatever the reason, firms slashed the size of their summer classes and have made fewer offers. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, for example, hired all of its summer associates in 2000. This year, 80 percent got offers — still a healthy number, but a significant decline nonetheless. The cuts in summer associate hiring are a dangerous game for firms. While cuts help the bottom line and may weed out poor performers, firms also risk turning off talent and harming their long-term ability to recruit. This is particularly true at a time when the Valley’s luster has suffered because of layoffs, moribund stock options and the fact that there are fewer exciting clients coming in the door. “I’m not concerned any of our summers are looking at competing tech firms,” said Suzanne Sawochka Hooper, one of Cooley Godward’s recruiting partners. “It’s going to be a matter of people being skittish about tech.” The six largest tech firms — Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, Cooley Godward, Fenwick & West, Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, Morrison & Foerster and Wilson — made offers to 401 summer associates this year and turned away 82. Last year, the firms hired 460, turning away 34. “The percentage of the summer associates that received offers was lower than in recent years, as we had many more performance issues,” Robert Suffoletto, a Wilson partner, wrote in an e-mail. Suffoletto and Leo Cunningham are coordinating partners of Wilson’s summer program. “Although we applied the same evaluation criteria this year, I think everyone (associates and partners) is taking a harder look at things in this business environment,” Suffoletto said. Suffoletto’s cohort, Cunningham, isn’t so easily put off. In fact, he said he’s shopping the reject piles for job candidates. “I’m looking at other people’s rejects with renewed skepticism,” said Cunningham. “We suspect that other people are likewise applying their criteria much more rigorously than they have in the past. “We don’t think there is or should be the stigma,” because the bar may have been raised, he added. Cunningham’s assessment is echoed by law school career counselors. They say quality hasn’t changed a bit — firms are just being more conservative. “It makes sense in this market that law firms are being more prudent in their hiring given the economy,” said Sari Zimmerman, director of career services at Hastings College of the Law. Zimmerman and her staff now encourage students to expand their job searches and consider small and midsized firms as well as government agencies. Looking outside big firms seems prudent given that many have been trimming their ranks in recent months. Two — Fenwick and Cooley — even resorted to associate layoffs to help plump the bottom line. And as might be expected because of the layoff, Fenwick had the lowest percentage in the number of summer associates who got offers this year. Seventy-seven percent of summers were offered a job in 2001, compared to 93 percent in 2000. Over four years, the firm extended invitations to an average 90 percent of its summer associates. John Steele, Fenwick’s summer associate recruiting partner, acknowledges the economy was a factor in the decline: “More conservative estimates of the market’s demand for legal services was only one consideration among many.” But he claims performance and overall fit with the firm’s culture took precedence. “You develop a sense of whether this summer associate will make legal problems disappear for paying clients,” Steele said. “Those who get useful things done for clients are rated highly.” Cooley, which laid off 86 associates in August, offered jobs to 80 percent of its 89 summers. Over the past four years, the firm made offers to an average of 90 percent of summer associates. Because of the layoffs, partners at Cooley and Fenwick are particularly anxious to see how many summer associates who got offers ultimately accept. Many lawyers see the acceptance rates this year as the first test of whether a layoff will hinder the firms’ ability to recruit among students. Uncertainty about the economy in general may prove to be a bigger challenge, said Cooley’s Hooper. On the one hand, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about how Valley firms can weather a lengthy downturn. And on the other, summer associates are likely to have few competing offers with so many law firms cutting back their hiring targets. Firms took varied approaches to trimming their summer associate programs. While some made fewer offers, others like Gray Cary had a much smaller class. In 2000, 74 students summered at Gray Cary. This year, just 48 were on hand. The smaller class size allowed the firm to make offers to 90 percent of the summers — the same percentage as 2000 and on track with its four-year hiring average. “We asked ourselves [last fall] what is the right size to get us the number of candidates we want to start with the firm,” said Richard Yankwich, Gray Cary’s recruiting partner. “I can’t say this is because we were prescient.” Brobeck also held this summer’s hiring steady compared to recent years. The firm made offers to 85 percent of its 128 summer associates — which is comparable to its four-year average of 87 percent. “It was our policy this summer that we were going to make offers to all associates that deserve them,” said Molly Moriarty Lane, the firm’s recruiting partner. Brobeck, however, did make some changes. Summer associates once had the luxury of choosing which practice group they wanted to work for. This year, the firm gave them offers to join — but no promises they’ll be assigned to the practice group of their choice. “We just don’t know if the corporate practice is going to be busier or slower next year,” Lane said. Related chart

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