Considering the way law firms have been shedding attorneys and staffers, it’s hardly a surprise that being a summer clerk this year wasn’t exactly the full five-star experience the summer class of 2009 may have dreamed about in law school.

Instead of being courted and catered to, this year’s summer class came face to face with the rough realities of the continuing economic downturn.

“The economic times suck,” one clerk at New York’s Skadden, Arps, Meagher, Slate & Flom wrote bluntly in response to our most recent summer associates survey. “The firm can’t change that. But the times have made for a difficult summer.” A Bryan Cave intern put it this way: “It is a scary time to be a law student.”

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    One indication of just how scary: The number of summer clerks who said they expected to receive full-time job offers was down sharply, according to our survey, while anecdotal evidence culled from respondents’ answers to open-ended questions suggested that stress and anxiety levels were up.

    Almost half of this year’s summer class said they weren’t sure whether they would get full-time offers from their firms, compared to just 17 percent last year and 12 percent in 2007. Many of the rising 3Ls expressed deep frustration—and in some cases outright panic—over being kept in the dark about firms’ hiring plans. “For the love of God,” pleaded one Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher clerk in a typical comment, “please be more transparent about the offer process and outlook.”

    That said, Gibson and other firms still managed to provide their clerks with substantive assignments, along with free (if generally less lavish) meals and an assortment of summer outings. But the ongoing uncertainty over job prospects definitely distracted from the usual unabashed summer fun.

    With the recession already in effect by mid-2008, last year’s summers were more nervous than those in prior years. Summer supervisors say that worries were even more pronounced this year. That may have had the effect of making the 2009 summers a bit more competitive and less collegial, at least with their peers. “My impression was that they were trying harder to make more of an impression,” says Sarah Davies, hiring partner at Philadelphia’s Cozen & O’Connor, this year’s top-ranking firm.

    This year’s Cozen associates didn’t just take more initiative in seeking out assignments. They also went out of their way to take more attorneys to lunch, including some senior partners. “They were definitely trying harder,” says Cozen summer program director Scott Brucker. “They weren’t taking anything for granted.”

    At third-ranking Fox Rothschild, in Philadelphia, professional recruitment director Sarah Apelquist recalls that one summer go-getter looking to specialize in intellectual property drove out to the firm’s Princeton office so he could personally introduce himself to the IP department chair. “Across the board, they were much more proactive in getting our attorneys to know them,” says Apelquist.

    For the past several years, firms with relatively small summer classes have tended to earn top scores in our survey. That trend held again this year. Top-ranking Cozen had 18 summer clerks; Boston’s Nutter McClennen & Fish, a perennial survey favorite and this year’s second-place finisher, had ten; and Fox Rothschild had 11. (Nutter and Cozen swapped places this year, after Nutter took the top honors in 2008 and Cozen finished second.) Our 2009 survey was sent to 7,169 summer clerks at 151 law firms; 4,971 responded. (Reflecting the more robust 2008 market, last year’s survey went to nearly 11,000 summers at 190 firms, yielding some 7,600 responses.)

    Even under the duress of the downturn, this year’s summer hires were fairly forgiving graders. The average overall score this year was 4.518 (based on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest)—virtually the same as last year’s 4.541. Even our bottom-ranking firm—Minneapolis’s Faegre & Benson—turned in a worthy-enough 4.031 score. (Faegre spokesman Tom Schierholz declined to comment on the firm’s performance this year.)

    As in previous years, this year’s two top firms scored perfect or near-perfect scores in all key categories, including the level of training and guidance they offered summer hires and the number of substantive matters they meted out.

    “The assignments were intellectually challenging, complex, and stimulating,” wrote one Cozen summer clerk. “A great place to work,” agreed another. “One of the rare things in life that are as good or better than expected.”

    Unlike many firms, Cozen has been in growth mode, and recently acquired 85 lawyers from Philadelphia’s now-defunct Wolf Block. Thus, it not only bucked the industry trend and continued its full ten-week summer program, it also told clerks up front that they could all count on getting job offers as long as they performed well. (As of early September, Cozen was still finalizing its summer offers, according to summer program director Brucker.)

The same was true at second-ranking Nutter McClennen, which also stuck to its traditional ten-week program. And, according to managing partner Michael Mooney, the firm expects to hire eight of ten clerks from its 2009 summer class—nearly the same percentage as last year. While Nutter’s transactions group has been slow, other practice areas have helped pick up the slack. “Litigation, IP, and trusts and estates have been perking along,” Mooney says.

By contrast, many firms haven’t managed to keep busy. Hence, the dramatic rise since last year in the percentage of summer clerks not counting on receiving job offers. Many clerks seem to be coping with the current job market by trying to figure out the most marketable career paths: Roughly 53 percent of respondents said they hoped to be litigators, up from 45 percent last year. The number of would-be bankruptcy specialists was double that of last year—rising to 8 percent.

But even those soon-to-be grads who are sharpening their focus will face a fiercely competitive market. And with nearly three-quarters of survey respondents saying that they’re counting on big-firm salaries to pay off law school debts, it’s no wonder that many clerks spent much of the summer obsessing over firms’ hiring plans.

Many expressed frustration about not getting what they considered to be straight answers about what was going on. “We are all incredibly worried about offers, and they have made no effort whatsoever to even inform us that they are aware how worried we are, let alone tell us what the plan is (even if they were just to say, ‘We haven’t figured it out’),” wrote one clerk at New York’s Schulte Roth & Zabel. “Essentially, it’s a giant elephant in the room that the powers-that-be simply refuse to acknowledge.” (Schulte Roth declined to comment on this year’s survey results.)

A Shearman & Sterling intern echoed that thought. “Give us some hint about whether or not offers will be made,” this associate wrote. “It’s deeply frustrating and very distracting to be left in the dark, and we spend a great deal of time discussing any hints we can pick up on.” (A Shearman spokeswoman said the firm wound up making offers to nearly all of its 61 summers.)

The 2009 summer experience wasn’t all darkness and despair. For many clerks, the chance to tackle such challenging projects as preparing asylum petitions for immigrants or an amicus brief for the U.S. Supreme Court provided a highly positive distraction from job offer–related angst.

And firms also did their best to keep summer hires diverted with a healthy mix of social activities that included river-rafting, race-car driving, mechanical bull-riding, moonlight kayaking, target-shooting, bowling, and even polka-dancing.

Still, compared to years past, the summer class of 2009 generally had to settle for a more limited and far less over-the-top range of outings, meals, and firm functions—and some clerks resented the economizing.

“There’s no need to have a social event if the firm doesn’t want to pay for all costs associated with it or wants to cut costs in indiscreet ways,” griped an intern at Chicago’s Mayer Brown.

“If necessary, lower the cap on per-lunch spending,” wrote a clerk at New York’s Cravath, Swaine & Moore, referring to a one-associate-lunch-per-week rule. “This rule has severely limited associate/summer interaction.”

Not all firms scrimped. In fact, at some, summer hires found the meals far too rich and the number of firm functions overwhelming.

“Please don’t take us out for any more New American cuisine,” wrote a clerk at New York’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. “Just because it’s expensive and drenched in butter doesn’t make it taste good.”

“Less fancy lunches!” wrote a Steptoe & Johnson intern. “I loved getting to know the other attorneys, but I hated eating that much at noon every day! Pizza or Chinese food would have been fine with me!”

A few of this year’s summer hires simply couldn’t fathom why firms would even bother bankrolling sumptuous meals and affairs. At least one guilt-ridden Ropes & Gray clerk actually worried that she and her peers were helping to waste money that should have been better spent. “We really don’t need BlackBerrys, free lunches every day, or an event every week,” she wrote. “If cutting back on these perks would help one more associate get hired or decrease the need for [deferrals], I would rather have our class start bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

The way things are going these days, getting in the habit of brown-bagging it may not be a bad idea.

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