August was an exhausting blur of hotel rooms and late-night flights for Thomas Leatherbury.

As the hiring partner for Houston-based Vinson & Elkins, Leatherbury spent the month rushing from campus to campus overseeing on-campus recruiting interviews during the weeks before classes started.

“August was horrible,” Leatherbury said. “It was absolutely horrible. We got to about 32 schools and job fairs, and there were days in August when we had interviews at five or six schools in the same day. Staffing those was very, very difficult.”

Criticism of the campus-based law firm recruiting model isn’t new, but the havoc the floundering economy has wreaked on law firm hiring and the push by law schools to move recruiting into late summer has prompted some law firm recruiters to pronounce the system broken. In response, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has proposed adoption of a nationwide offer kickoff date in January. Law firms would not be able to extend any summer associate offers until that time.

Law firm recruiters, law school administrators and law students are still digesting the proposal — but the reaction thus far has been mixed.

“I think NALP has taken a very thoughtful approach, and I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Mark Webber, assistant dean for career services at Harvard Law School. “It slows down the frenzy quite a bit, and it gives the employers a chance to see the entire applicant pool. It also gives the students a chance to evaluate multiple employers without the fear of running out of time.”

Not everyone is convinced the current recruiting system needs such a dramatic change, however.

“We have a very strong reaction, and frankly, it’s allergic,” said Gregory Shumaker, firmwide hiring manager at Jones Day, who thinks it favors firms that — unlike his own — delayed associate start dates when the economy went south.

NALP, which sets the guidelines for law school campus recruiting, formed a 16-member commission last fall to evaluate the process. It released a plan on Jan. 7 that, if adopted, would present the most significant change to law firm campus recruiting in decades. NALP is accepting public comment until Jan. 29, and a vote by the board is set for late February.

The change is intended to reduce the number of schools holding interviews in August and give firms more time to assess their hiring needs. At present, firms are allowed to extend offers whenever they choose, as long as they give students 45 days to respond. (This setup led to quick offers for top prospects in boom times but put pressure on students to quickly accept their earliest offers during recent tough economic times.) Instead of a 45-day response period, the proposal would give students 14 days to accept summer associate offers. Students don’t need as much time to make a decision because they will have had more time to evaluate firms before those firms extend offers, the commission reasoned.

New York University School of Law 1L Erinn Martin plans to participate in the school’s interview process next August. She would prefer getting offers in the fall than the proposed January time line.

“I just think [the NALP proposal] would make the recruiting process longer and more drawn out,” she said. “I feel like waiting until January would be more stressful than knowing earlier whether or not you have an offer.”

NALP Executive Director Jim Leipold said the commission considered the implications of an elongated recruiting season for students and concluded that any harm would be minimal. Students wait several anxious months to learn whether they are accepted into law school, he reasoned; waiting to hear about summer associate job offers should be no different. Additionally, the commission proposed a January offer date specifically to avoid overlap with the busy December finals season.

“Every class is brand new,” Leipold said. “Whatever you announce to them is their new reality. It won’t seem as if they are disadvantaged because they haven’t been through the old system.”

Even so, the new time frame could hurt 2Ls who interview but don’t receive summer offers, Webber said; they might not know that they don’t have a offer until January, meaning they can’t use the winter break to regroup and develop a Plan B. “They would be put on hold, in a way.”

The NALP commission is urging law firms to inform the students who won’t be receiving offers as soon as possible. Furthermore, December and January tend to be relatively slow hiring times, and students would likely miss out on few opportunities even if they didn’t restart their summer job search until after January, Leipold said.

University of Oregon School of Law 2L Aaron Millstein fears the proposal could hurt students at schools below the top tier. Those schools tend to have a greater mix of employers that follow the NALP guidelines — generally, larger firms — and those that don’t — generally, local and regional firms.

“For me, the drawbacks of this plan relate to the non-Harvards, which have regional and local firms coming on campus to recruit,” Millstein said.

Approximately half of the 45 firms that come to Oregon in the fall to recruit adhere to the NALP guidelines, said assistant dean and director of career services Joshua Burstein. It’s not unheard of for an Oregon student to have both an offer from a firm in Eugene, Ore., that doesn’t follow NALP rules and a callback scheduled with a Seattle or Portland firm that does. Timing could be even more problematic if firms have to wait until January to extend offers, Burstein said.

“Those students with offers from non-NALP member employers would have to make decisions potentially much earlier that January, so that’s a concern,” said Burstein, who would rather leave things alone than adopt the proposed changes. “For most law schools, this will be an issue.”

Leipold said most small and midsize firms that don’t follow NALP guidelines recruit in the spring anyway. Additionally, some law schools have made adherence to NALP guidelines a condition for recruiting on campus.

EARLY DECISIONS MAY BE FORCED

Susan Robinson, associate dean for career services at Stanford Law School, considers the January time line workable but fears the 14-day response deadline could result in less effective matches between firms and students. A student who received an offer on the kickoff date from only his third-choice firm might not receive a second-round offer from his top choices before he must decide on the offer in hand. Firms stand to lose out, too. “That’s the biggest sticking point for me,” she said.

Ashish Nanda, a Harvard law professor who proposes that law firms and law schools use a central matching system much like the one that pairs medical residents and hospitals, shared Robinson’s concerns.

“It will worsen the problem of mismatches,” he said. “In its current form, the system will lead to a lot of heartbreaks.”

Still, Nanda said, the proposed changes are an improvement over the status quo. He believes they eventually would lead to a central matching system, which he argues would be more efficient.

Jones Day has offered some of the sharpest criticism of the plan. The firm pulled Liz Berner, recruiting manager in its Los Angeles office, from the NALP commission just days after the proposal was released to protest its recommendations. Jones Day doesn’t want to be hemmed in by rules meant to protect firms whose reputations suffered because they laid off associates, rescinded job offers or made other unpopular cost-cutting moves, Shumaker said.

“Jones Day hasn’t done that, and they want to require us to link arms with our competitors who have,” Shumaker said. “We think the process was driven, in part, by a great deal of our competitors.”

By contrast, Leatherbury of Vinson & Elkins found plenty to like about NALP’s proposal. If even a small number of law schools elect to push interviews back to September or October, it will be much easier for firms to manage their August recruiting schedules, he said. The January offer kickoff will also give firms more time to conduct callback interviews and get to know their potential hires.

Perhaps more important, the January offer kickoff would give firms more time to determine how many summer associates — and consequently new associates the following year — they will need. By the time January rolls around, firms will know how many summer associates have accepted permanent positions and how their year-end financials look.

“It allows firms to get their year-end results and make decisions closer to when those associates are starting,” Leatherbury said. “Some people think an extra couple of months doesn’t matter, but it does.”

Stephen Venuto, firmwide on-campus hiring partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, tentatively supports the NALP proposal but hopes for additional reforms that move the recruiting process into the spring semester.

“When I look at the proposed January offer date and see that it’s a week before grades come out as opposed to a week after, I think that’s a disadvantage for students,” said Venuto, noting that some students struggle in their first semester of law school and could use another grading period to improve their academic records.

The NALP commission examined the possibility of moving the interview process into the spring, as several firms had suggested. It concluded that spring recruiting would encroach on final exams and graduation, while impeding summer program planning for firms.

Of course, establishing rules and making firms follow them are two different things. NALP has no enforcement power and has generally relied on law schools to sanction firms that break its guidelines. The NALP commission acknowledged that firms might be tempted to skirt the offer kickoff date by signaling to students that they will receive offers before January. Any harm would be minimal as long as firms don’t require students to accept offers before the 14-day response period that opens in January, the commission concluded. Both Nanda and Webber said a longer recruiting period significantly ups the likelihood that firms will pressure students to accept offers prior to the kickoff date, or at least signal their intent to make an offer. “If that happens, we’re right back to where we are now, with schools wanting to hold the first interviews,” Webber said.

Feedback on the proposal has been coming in at a steady pace since the proposal was unveiled, Leipold said. The most consistent comment thus far from law firms is that the offer-date kickoff should be moved to December — even though that might interfere with final exams. Although Leipold expects some tweaks to be made to the proposal following the public comment period, “I do think some version of this is likely to be adopted.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.