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A shaky national economy continues to weigh on Atlanta’s summer associate programs. Firms are hiring fewer students than they did last year, and they are presenting fewer offers at the end of the season, making summer programs more competitive than ever. The stories of summers past — of hard work tempered with heavy doses of fun — are far from the minds of today’s students, who know their futures could depend on their summer performance. “It seems to me it’s almost palpable how tense the situation is,” said Steven M. Bernstein, the hiring partner at Fisher & Phillips. HIRING DIPS IN ATLANTA According to the National Association for Law Placement, based in Washington, summer associate hires or planned hires dipped 21 percent nationwide between 2001 and 2003 (the latest years for which data are available). Hires or planned hires for entry-level associates dove almost 17 percent in the same period. Atlanta hiring has followed a similar path. In a Daily Report survey of 18 firms, eight reported that they reduced summer class sizes this year. The total number of summer associates for the 18 firms fell 5 percent, from 384 last year to 365. Since 2001, the firms have cut class sizes by 32 percent. Alston & Bird is one firm hosting fewer students this year. Chairman Jonathan W. Lowe said two factors affected the firm’s hiring of summer associates: The projected need for practice group hires in 2005 dropped, and a crop of judicial clerks is set to join the firm in 2005. Even with smaller class sizes, firms are not absorbing all their summer hires. While several firms — including Arnall Golden Gregory, Holland & Knight, and Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker — offered all of their summer associates jobs last year, many Atlanta firms did not, according to the NALP. STUDENTS ACCEPTING QUICKLY The tight market means that summer associates are trying hard to impress firm partners and secure an offer. “I think they probably put too much pressure on themselves to have the perfect summer experience because they think so much hinges on it,” Fisher & Phillips’ Bernstein said. “My impression is that they ought to still have fun, learn as much as they can and learn more about the practice of law. “It’s just a shame that the market puts that much pressure on law students, though I’m not sure there’s much you can to do to change it,” he added. The pressure to perform well begins outside the firm, according to university placement officers. “We try to tell them that they need to go there and be more concerned about work than play time,” said Ivonne Betancourt, interim director of career services for Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law. “It’s not the way it used to be,” she said, referring to when social activities overshadowed summer associates’ work. “It’s half and half: play and work,” she tells students. “They don’t really think this is vacation,” said Beth S. Kirch, director of legal career services for the University of Georgia School of Law. “This is a serious deal. If nothing else, the salaries tell them that a lot will be expected of them. That’s handed down from one class of 2Ls to the next — that they really are under scrutiny, and they want to get that offer.” Yet in the current market, even hard-working students could come up short of an offer, and that increases students’ anxiety, said Susan F. McAvoy, director of career services for Emory University School of Law. “It’s one thing to know that if you work hard, you will get a job offer. It’s another thing to work just as hard but not get an offer because of the economic situation,” she said. When offers come, students are jumping on them, said R. Douglas Wright, the partner in charge of entry-level hires at Holland & Knight. “Our offers after the fall interview season were accepted very, very quickly, which was different and surprising,” he said. “In past years, it seems as though we’ve been strung out up to deadline in terms of those kids making decisions,” Wright said. “This year, they were accepting in a matter of weeks after the callback visit. “The ones who accepted seemed intent on getting a position in place, and not worrying about it anymore because they’re involved in activities at school,” he said. “It’s a different type of approach to playing around in the field and waiting for late offers.” FEW FIRMS RAISING PAY Despite shrinking class sizes, summer associate salaries are holding steady. Among the 18 firms surveyed, most are keeping 2004 salaries at last year’s levels, and seven are increasing weekly pay by an average of $104. Fisher & Phillips bumped its summer salaries up $200 a week to keep pace with starting salaries of entry-level associates, Bernstein said. The firm pays its second-year law students $1,700 a week. Holland & Knight’s $150-a-week raise brings that firm’s pay for second-year law students to $1,900 a week — second behind Jones Day in the Daily Report‘s survey. According to Wright, the raise was driven by Holland & Knight’s national recruiting staff. He noted that, while the firm was “simply trying to remain competitive,” it may have pushed salaries somewhat high for the Atlanta region. COSTS REMAIN FLAT Like salaries, costs for summer programs are holding steady, despite reduced class sizes. Even with 14 fewer students in its summer class, Alston & Bird’s program costs are the same as 2003, according to the firm. Lowe said inflation has kept expenses for events, airfare and catering high, offsetting the savings afforded by a smaller class. This year, his firm is flying its summer associates to San Destin, a Florida beach resort, for a retreat. A smaller class size saved Troutman Sanders $288,000 in salaries, but “pressure on the travel industry” has run up costs, said hiring partner Michael D. Hobbs Jr. Troutman Sanders has organized a weekend retreat to Wild Dunes in South Carolina for summer associates from Washington, Richmond and Atlanta. Other firms report that the increased price of Atlanta Braves and Chastain Park Amphitheatre tickets�staples of the firms’ entertainment agenda�has kept costs high. RECRUITING SCHEDULES CHANGE Many firms are shortening the duration of their summer programs, settling on 10 to 12 weeks as opposed to 12 and 13 weeks in previous years. That is due partially to a shift in fall recruiting schedules, according to law schools and firms. UGA began inviting firms to recruit prior to the fall semester after professors complained that students were missing classes to attend interviews. According to Kirch, some firms have begun having Saturday interviews, when students aren’t as busy and are more relaxed. Troutman Sanders recruits at nine schools that will do pre-semester interviews this summer. As a result, the firm trimmed a week off its summer program to allow its recruiting team time to visit campuses. Emory, Mercer and UGA report that, with fewer jobs to offer, some firms have stopped visiting their law school campuses. (Georgia State University could not be reached for comment.) Other firms are stepping in, however, so the number of on-campus recruiters has not changed dramatically. Emory’s interview coordinator, Erica L. Bubsey, said that, while the number of firms recruiting on campus has dipped slightly, a few Connecticut, Texas and Boston firms came to Emory for the first time last year. Mercer’s Betancourt is seeing a similar development. “Thank God [the numbers] stayed the same and got a little better even though the economy is a little slow,” she said. “The firms that didn’t come were replaced by some that hadn’t come before.” According to Kirch, the number of firms recruiting at UGA has increased. “As one practice area wanes, another gets stronger,” she said, noting that small, medium and large firms recruit on campus. In any economy, top students are hot commodities. Hobbs said that while Troutman Sanders is hosting 57 students this summer, the firm had room for more. He did not get as many acceptances as he’d hoped, he noted. “We shot for the top in terms of the people we wanted, and these folks in this economy still have a lot of opportunities,” he said. “We gave a fair number of offers. It remains a very competitive market.” According to Bernstein, the competition is prompting firms to consider more than grade-point average when making hiring decisions. “I’d be willing to say we’re more open minded than we used to be,” he said. “We’ve got to dig deeper. We’ve found excellent lawyers outside the top 20 to 30 percent of a class. We’re looking for a diverse group of lawyers, not just academically, but in terms of life experience.” Work experience between college and law school is more highly regarded by recruiters than it once was, Bernstein said. “If you want to distinguish yourself, you need to have real world experience,” he noted, adding that his firm, a labor and employment boutique, places management and human resources experience “at a premium.”

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