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Hiring cycles are a cruel master. When Alan Greenspan sets interest rates, he works with an economic forecasting horizon of about two months. But the typical big-firm hiring partner has to decide right now how many first-year associates are needed for the fall of 2003. Starting next month, recruiters will hit the law school circuit, talking up their firms’ summer programs. The pool of summer associates in 2002 will help determine how many 2003 first-years there are. It’s a long pipeline, and priming it with too few or too many can lead to big financial and public relations blunders down the line. But to see ahead in uncertain times, many are looking back to a decade ago. In the business slump of the early ’90s, firms cut way back on entry-level hiring. Within a few years those cuts looked like an overreaction, with too few midlevels to handle a revived workload. They won’t make that mistake again. New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager & Flom, for instance, is staying the course now, even though the trough in deal work may not have hit bottom yet. “We’ve learned our lesson,” says Carol Sprague, the firm’s director of legal hiring. Back in 1991 and 1992, Skadden cut its first-year classes by about a third. This fall, by contrast, about 150 entry-level associates will be starting work, and the firm is “not expecting any changes” in hiring numbers for the foreseeable future. “Everything is cyclical,” says Sprague. “We plan to ride out the downturn.” Silicon Valley firms may not have that luxury. And lateral hiring of associates at most firms is down. But in general, large national firms are still actively recruiting first-years in numbers comparable to those of the recent boom times. The law schools have taken note, and are anxious to see whether the classes of 2002 and beyond can still land those $125,000-plus starting salaries. “I think everybody’s scared,” says Susan Guindi, assistant dean for career services at the University of Michigan Law School, who says she began to get nervous last summer. When it came to hiring, “it’s been rough out on the West Coast, but things have not been as dire as I expected nationwide.” Even in the West, the top schools have not seen any falloff. “Quite frankly, I’m a bit surprised,” says Lori Nelson, director of career services at the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. “We’ve had maybe a handful [of firms] who said they won’t be needing as many interview schedules, and said they’re not going to be interviewing third-years.” In other parts of the country, schools say they’re not seeing any change at all. The firms echo that. “I don’t see, based on where we’re going, any significant changes,” says Bruce Gutenplan, a partner at New York’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. “We are very busy, and we need good people.” Last year all of the firm’s summer associates received offers; this year the firm hopes to do the same for its 101 summer associates, says Patricia Morrissy, the firm’s director of legal recruitment. The Am Law 200 firms have long recruited beyond the Ivies, and that continues to be true. But the top schools aren’t the only ones boasting that recruiting has stayed strong. At Fordham University School of Law in New York, for example, the career services office says that it has even more employers interviewing on campus this year than last. Although the one dot-com company that signed up to recruit at Fordham last season hasn’t called yet this year, the school, like others, still has the full array of law firms, along with a handful of nonlegal employers, such as consulting firms, says Christina Meincke, Fordham’s director of employer relations and recruitment. Boston University reports the same. “We’ve seen no change at all,” says Heather Bace, B.U.’s recruitment manager. Of course, interviews are only the first step. “There may be a difference in the number of offers they give,” says Susan Robinson, associate dean for career services at Stanford Law School. Though she won’t have a sense of those offers until late October or early November, she says that law students are a bit anxious. In California they have reason to worry. Law students in the West have seen recent graduates from the top schools returning to their career services offices with their tails between their legs, after the once-hot, tech-focused California firms started cutting costs through aggressive “performance reviews.” That allowed firms to terminate some barely tested young associates without having to fess up to the fact that tough times demanded layoffs. Associates have been fired in this manner at Silicon Valley’s Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, and Venture Law Group, for instance. As Venture Law Group’s Donald Keller Jr. puts it: “Now that we have extra capacity, we felt it was appropriate to be very aggressive on the performance reviews.” None of the firms will call it a layoff, however. Associates at East Coast firms aren’t immune to the performance crackdown either. Boston’s Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo recently axed about a dozen associates in its main office, as did New York’s Dewey Ballantine. Still, even the most tech-focused of these firms are hiring entry-levels. “We will be more cautious now,” says Keller, who admits that his firm will hire fewer lawyers this year than last. “But we’re going to need to have a crop of people coming in every year.” Last year Venture Law Group hired about 15 new associates. This year it’s likely to be fewer than 10, says Keller. Although Brobeck has cut back a little on law school interviewing — it’s eliminated three schools from its list — the firm still intends to make offers to about 85-95 percent of its 131 summer associates: “Anyone who deserves an offer certainly will receive it,” says Molly Lane, chair of Brobeck’s hiring committee. Wilson Sonsini is hiring, too. “We’re likely to be more selective about the people we hire. But that will be most applicable to third-years looking for jobs. Our hiring will be the same for summer associates as in previous years,” says Keith Eggleton, a hiring partner. If it is, Wilson will be hiring more than 90 percent of its 72 summer associates nationwide. That may make sense for large firms with diverse practices, which weather economic adversity the best. Even with corporate work down, they need associates for litigation and bankruptcy. Still, new lawyers face a decidedly harsher environment. “Graduates that even a year ago had five job offers are looking at a whole different landscape,” says Donald Oppenheim, in the Walnut Creek, Calif., office of Altman Weil Inc. Welcome to a buyer’s market. But take solace: For now, at least, someone is still buying.

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