Correction, 8/10/11, 12:45 p.m. EST: The original version of this story included inaccurate data for the size of summer associate class sizes at Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in 2009 and 2010, as well as for the rate at which the firms extended job offers to their summer associates during those years. This story has been revised to include the correct data. We regret the errors.

The latest version of The American Lawyer’s Summer Hiring Survey shows that large law firms extended 33 percent fewer job offers to their summer associates last year than they did the year before–a drop partially explained by the fact that summer classes were down across the board.

Among the 79 firms that responded to the survey, 1,791 summer associates received offers in 2010, compared to the 2,679 who got offers in 2009. Fifty-six firms made fewer offers to summer associates last year than they had in 2009, 16 made more, and seven made the same number.

(See the chart below for the complete results from the Summer Hiring Survey. Click on the survey headings to sort based on full-time offers to summer associates in 2010 or 2009, by the change in total offers, or by the percentage change in offers.)

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom reported the largest drop in the number of offers among large firms, going from 207 in 2009 to 71 in 2010, a 66 percent decline. Cravath, Swaine & Moore reported the largest percentage drop in offers, decreasing 81 percent from 118 in 2009 to 22 in 2010. At the same time, the two firms’ offer rates didn’t change much between the two years. Skadden’s rate went from 95 percent in 2009 to 93.4 percent in 2010, while Cravath’s went from 97.5 percent to 100 percent.

One explanation for the declines in the raw number of offers at those two firms–and many others–was that there were simply fewer people to offer jobs to. Skadden’s summer associate pool went from 223 in 2009 to 79 in 2010; Cravath’s went from 123 to 23. (Like many big firms, both Skadden and Cravath bumped the size of their summer classes up this year; overall the firms surveyed, on average, had slightly fewer summer associates this year than last. The Am Law Daily will publish a report about summer class sizes in the coming days.)

A Cravath representative declined to comment. A Skadden representative was not immediately available.

Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson was one of the few firms to report a significant leap in the number of offers it made between 2009 and 2010. It was also one of the few firms to increase the size of its summer class from year to year. Fried Frank made offers to all 53 out its 2L summer associates that were eligible to receive job offers last year, compared to 35 out of 36 of 2L summer associates eligible to receive job offers (97.2 percent) in 2009. The firm did not respond to a request for comment.

Because most firms reduced their class sizes so significantly in 2010 from 2009 levels, the rate at which summer associates were offered jobs actually rose slightly last year, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). The percentage of summer associates snagging full-time offers last year jumped to 87.4 percent at the firms NALP surveyed, compared 69 percent the prior year. The rate was 89.9 percent in 2008, according to NALP.

“Law firms recruit so far out that they had recruited big summer classes before the brunt of the slow-down was felt, and they had larger summer classes coming through the pipeline than they could accommodate,” says NALP executive director James Leipold.

That glut of candidates, coupled with a number of deferred associates who had been promised spots, resulted in the major dip in offer rates, Leipold says. Firms reacted to that trend, he adds, by bringing in smaller summer classes to have the ability to make offers to a higher percentage of young lawyers.

“Law firms hate to recruit good people, have them come through their summer programs, and then not be able to make them an offer,” he says. “That is a waste of everyone’s resources and they understand that.”

One result of the improved offer rates in 2010, given that more options existed, was a slight dip in the percentage of associates who accepted their offers. The firms we surveyed showed an overall acceptance rate of 84 percent for their 2010 offers. NALP reports that the firms it surveyed reported an acceptance rate of just over 82 percent last year, down from 84.5 percent in 2009.

Leipold is wary of speculating about what this year’s offer rates will look like, as summer classes at some firms are creeping back to pre-2010 levels. The lateral market heated up this year, he says, indicating that firms are willing to spend on talent. Still, he sees most firms taking a conservative to hiring, given a still shaky economic outlook and the fact that many firms continue to perform structural tinkering to keep costs down while trying to recruit and make offers.

“Law firms are proceeding cautiously. I think they’re certainly prepared to constrict both offer rates and class size again if the economic conditions warrant that.”

Photo by Keith Frith/Fotolia.com.

This story originally appeared on The Am Law Daily.

Purchase the electronic version of the 2011 Summer Hiring Survey with information and details from ALM Legal Intelligence. Visit ALMLegalIntelligence.com or call 1-888-770-5647.