As the hot sun gets reacquainted with Connecticut, law firms are bustling again with summer associates.

Some Connecticut firms began revving up their internship programs last year after the economic downturn that beginning in 2008 limited even temporary hires. Still, most firms haven’t returned to pre-recession summer class sizes.

“I am seeing far fewer firms participating in spring on-campus recruiting fairs and at fall pre-interview firm receptions,” said Lee Hoffman, who co-chairs the recruiting committee at Pullman & Comley in Hartford. “I am noticing it appears as though students are having more offers than they had two or three years ago, and there is an uptick. But I don’t think we’re back to pre-2008 levels.”

Pullman & Comley started two new summer associates in its Bridgeport office last week. Since 2002, Hoffman said, Pullman has never had fewer than two summer associates and never more than five. Since a summer associate position is often viewed as a tryout for a permanent job, the number of summer associates “is based on our hiring needs year in and year out,” said Hoffman.

Same goes for Carmody & Torrance, which this year has four summer associates. And at Cohen & Wolf, which started two summer associates last week, a consistent number of summer hires have been brought in going back to before 2008. At Halloran & Sage, partners said they have always brought in between four and five summer associates, since at least 2005. There will be four this year — three second-year students and one first-year.

“The way we have it structured, we’ve never gone overboard,” said Jeffrey Gostyla, a partner Halloran & Sage’s insurance group and the chair of its summer associate program. “We don’t bring in a dozen people and tell them we have room for five [permanent attorneys]. That’s not our plan.”

In fact, bringing in large groups of summer associates doesn’t seem to be the plan of many firms.

Nationally, the average summer associate class size remained at eight — matching what had been the historic low set last year, according to a recent report by the National Association for Law Placement. Smaller classes appear to have allowed firms to extend permanent job offers to the vast majority of summer associates — something they did not do as recently as 2009, when they had committed to large summer classes pre-recession but saw demand for legal services slow dramatically with the economic crash.

CLIENT NEEDS

One thing is certain: summer associates are getting more work product-based experiences than ever before.

Several years ago, Robinson & Cole, the state’s largest Connecticut-based firm, used to bring in summer classes of six or seven. But this year, it has two summer associates in Hartford, one in Boston and one in Rhode Island. The decrease, said hiring partner Thomas Cody, had nothing to do with the economic downturn.

“It’s more of a question of aligning our staff and resources with our clients’ needs,” he said.

Shipman & Goodwin this year hired six associates for the summer. Four will be in Hartford and two will work out of the firm’s Stamford office. In comparison, the firm had as few as four summer hires in 2011, but as many as 11 in 2008. “While not back to pre-recession numbers, the size of the class has slightly increased over the past few years,” said Karen Staib, a partner and the firm’s hiring chair.

The firm has also adjusted the length of the program. It went from 10 weeks pre-recession, to eight weeks in 2009, back to nine weeks this year.

“The summer associate program has always been a critical facet of our overall hiring process,” Staib said. “I know some firms have moved away from summer hiring, but we continue to recruit at a wide array of schools in order to create the best summer class possible. We find the results to be worth that effort every season.”

At Day Pitney, hiring partner Joe Scully remembers the “great legal market of the late ’90s” when he was a summer associate at another firm. Back then, he said, members of summer classes spent a lot more time “eating cookies and drinking beer than our law students do.”

While there is still a significant social component to the firm’s summer program — softball games and partner dinners — “there’s a lot more focus on doing quality work now, so you get an offer,” Scully said.

To make sure law students will be a good fit if hired, Scully said he likes to see the summer hires handle all aspects of a project. “Two summers ago, we were involved in a dispute in which we were going to take a deposition of an expert witness in an interest valuation theory with respect to a damaged piece of machinery,” he said. “We asked a summer associate to research the legal standard that would apply to how you would go about considering that type of valuation. The summer associate then took those depositions in the case and was able to provide some good questions. The associate then moved to preclude the expert and she took the first stab at the motion to preclude.”

The associate, he said, helped the case get resolved.

Day Pitney spends a lot more time than it used to, said Scully, evaluating law students and whether they want to work in Connecticut, as opposed to “just getting bodies.” In past years, some summer associates in larger classes would spend the summer in Hartford, and then leave to work in a larger market, like Boston or New York. The number of summer associates this year — five second-year law students in Connecticut and six in New Jersey — is clearly less than before the recession. The number, he said, is the result of “sitting down and anticipating what our needs will be in the future better.”

REDUCED OPPORTUNITIES

It’s unlikely that summer associate classes will return to pre-recession classes anytime soon. Since the official start of the recession in 2007, more than 40,000 legal services jobs have disappeared, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

McCarter & English suspended its summer program two years ago and won’t have one this year. The firm is now more likely to hire associates with at least a few years under their belts, reasoning that clients do not want to pay for a learning curve. About a year ago, McCarter & English utilized that strategy, plucking seven hires from Robinson & Cole.

But students who do manage to land summer slots say that its well worth the effort. Andraya Pulaski, a University of Connecticut School of Law student, started her summer job at Day Pitney in Hartford last week. Interested in environmental and energy practice areas, Pulaski said she is greeting the challenge head on.

“I think it’s a difficult economy for all jobs, not just legal jobs,” she said. “If you work hard, there are opportunities.”