The National Association for Law Placement has confirmed what many frustrated law students already know: Getting a foot in the door of the legal industry is especially tough right now.

A NALP survey of 2008 law firm recruiting found that law firms offered fewer summer associate positions to current 2Ls for 2009, and fewer 2008 summer associates received full-time job offers. Not surprisingly, the acceptance rate for those summer associate and permanent positions was unusually high. “This decline is pretty big, compared to what we’ve seen recently,” said Judith Collins, NALP’s director of research.

Last year’s recruiting climate was the weakest the legal industry has seen in four years, according to the NALP survey, and 2Ls were hit hardest by the rollbacks.

The median number of offers to 2Ls for summer associate positions at firms of all sizes fell from 15 in the fall of 2007 to 10 in the fall of 2008. The decline was even steeper at firms with 700 or more attorneys, where the median number of summer associate offers fell from 30 in 2007 to 18.5 in 2008. Additionally, fewer callback interviews yielded summer associate offers in 2008. In recent years, about 60% of callback interviews led to summer associate offers. Last fall, however, only 47% of callback interviews led to offers.

Law students appear to have recognized the economic pressures facing law firms. Acceptance rates for summer associate offers increased by about 3% from the previous year, to 32.5%.

Because employers determined the size of their 2008 summer associate classes before the economy’s serious decline, the class sizes held steady with 2007 — at an average of 13 students. But fewer 2008 associates received offers with the firms where they summered. About 90% of 2008 summer associates were offered full-time positions, compared to about 93% in 2007. Acceptance rates for full-time offers rose slightly, from 77% in 2007 to 80% in 2008. Firms also did less recruiting of 3Ls in 2008. Only 25% of firms said they recruited 3Ls not previously employed by them, compared to about 66% in recent years.

Law firm participation in on-campus interviewing and job fairs last year generally held steady or decreased, the NALP survey found. Close to half of law schools — 46% — reported a decrease of 5% or more in firm participation in recruiting activities. Another 36% of schools said firm participation decreased by less than 5%, which reverses a recent trend of increased firm participation.

“This is sort of what we expected,” Collins said of the survey’s gloomy findings. “It’s probably going to continue, but we have no way to project how long and how severe the declines will be.”

The 2008 hiring practices marked a sharp contrast to hiring practices in 2007 for 2008 law graduates. The National Law Journal‘s Go-To Law School survey, which looks at recruiting at the nation’s 20 most popular schools among firms in The National Law Journal’s annual survey of the nation’s 250 largest law firms, showed that first-year associate hiring from those schools remained steady for 2008 graduates, with 54.6% of graduates from the top 20 schools going to NLJ 250 firms. In the previous year, 54.9% of 2007 graduates at the 20 most popular schools took jobs as first-year associates at NLJ 250 law firms.