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When Grace Robinson accepted Thelen Reid & Priest’s offer to be a summer associate, she was hoping to get a feel for the work big-firm associates regularly churn out. The 27-year-old student at University of Pennsylvania Law School certainly got her wish. “The work has been hard, but it also felt we were necessary and useful,” Robinson said. In yet another sea change from the go-go days of the tech boom, San Francisco Bay Area summer associates are finding they have to prove their worth to their prospective law firm employers by keeping their egos in check and their minds on their work. Gone are the days when law firms wined and dined law school students as they tried to hire as many first-year associates as possible to deal with the flood of work. Now, positions are relatively scarce, and firms no longer have the will or the means to throw lavish social events for their summer associates. And more importantly for the students, firms are not guaranteeing them a job offer at the end of their summer stays. That fact became evident with the last crop of summer associates hosted by Silicon Valley’s largest technology firms. Last year, they rejected 17 percent of the candidates they had hosted. In 2000, only 7 percent of summer associates failed to get offers. “It was apparent when we were interviewing that the climate had changed dramatically,” Robinson said. “It gives us a sense of security to be working, when there’s been so much trouble.” Richard Lapping, New York-based Thelen Reid’s recruiting partner who oversees the summer program, said the mood was somber among summer associates this year. In prior years, Lapping said, “there was generally a more relaxed sense that they’re in an up market with lots of possibilities, and this class did not exude that level of self-confidence.” With 16 associates, Thelen Reid’s class of summers in San Francisco is actually larger this year than last year’s batch of 15. Lapping said the firm had a few more associates accept than in prior years, but he was confident he could find jobs for all of them. But the bigger class at Thelen Reid is an anomaly. Most other Bay Area firms hosted smaller classes than last year. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, for example, cut the size of its summer class this year to 31 from last year’s 72. San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison reduced its class size to 62 associates, down from last year’s 129. Leo Cunningham, Wilson Sonsini’s recruiting partner, said many students are afraid that firms have taken on more summer associates than they can hire, and that’s got this year’s class feeling more accountable. “This summer is different from prior summers,” Cunningham said. “They’re worried about the number of offers firms are going to make and whether firms have correctly sized their summer classes.” With some firms still hosting summer associates and not yet making final decisions about hiring, recruiting partners were reluctant to discuss their plans for making offers. Lora Taylor, a Wilson Sonsini summer associate, said her friends thought she was crazy for accepting an offer at a Valley tech firm. The 24-year-old Duke University School of Law student said the “safe” job markets are New York and Washington, D.C. But what drew her here is the California lifestyle. “I really like the area,” Taylor said. Some view the change in attitude toward work in the summer months as a positive side effect of the downturn. “Students are getting a much better work experience, and much better information about the profession they’re about to enter,” said Mark Weber, the director of career services at Harvard Law School. Partners appreciate the change in attitude as well. Allison Leopold Tilley, Pillsbury Winthrop’s recruiting partner in Palo Alto, recalls one summer associate two years ago who groaned loudly about the possibility of getting a Palm Pilot as a firm welcome gift because she already had one. The firm’s gifts weren’t quite so flashy, Tilley said, but the briefcases and leather-bound notebooks were nice enough to have some partners eyeing the booty. This year, no one complained about the gifts, and when she walked the halls at 5 p.m., there were still summer associates in the office working, she said. “The reality is when you get here as a lawyer, it’s a lot of hard work, and you want people who are going to do that and not be shocked that they have to roll up their sleeves,” Tilley said. All the focus on work product hasn’t taken all the fun away, however. But instead of huge bashes, the summers have been meeting firm lawyers in smaller groups. Thelen Reid’s visiting summer Robinson said she’s had a “fabulous” summer and the work was a positive. “That’s much more valuable than a summer of partying,” she said.

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