The employment picture is looking up for recent law grads — at least a little bit.

New figures from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) show that offer rates to summer associates rose from the historic low of 69% in 2009 to 87% in 2010. That 18% increase puts offer rates back in the ballpark of the 90% offer rates of 2008, which was the last summer program season before the financial crisis hit in earnest.

“These numbers describe a soft bounce in the market,” said NALP Executive Director James Leipold. “Clearly, from a recruiting perspective, the most dramatic impact of the economic downturn has passed, and law firms are beginning to return to the market for new law school graduates with more confidence than they had at the height of the recession.”

However, Leipold warned that recruiting gains in 2010 were minor, and that the legal industry is still recovering.

With more job offers on the table last year, law graduates were pickier. Acceptance rates for permanent job offers fell slightly, from 85% in 2009 to 82% in 2010. There also were more opportunities for 2Ls to snag summer positions than during 2009. The median number of summer offers from firms increased slightly, from seven to nine. Still, the overall size of summer programs remained smaller than usual in 2010 — the median class size dropped to four, after hovering at around six for most of the past decade.

On a bright note, most law firm offices that did not host a summer program last year are poised to add them in 2011, according to NALP’s survey.

Recruiters were a bigger presence on law school campuses this fall. A quarter of law schools reported a 5% or larger increase in the number of employers who visited in 2010, compared to 2009. More than a third of employers told NALP that they either maintained or increased they number of schools they visited in 2010. Firms with 500 or more lawyers were most likely to have increased their on-campus interviews.

The hiring of 3Ls remained slow in 2010, however. Only 15% of law firm offices reported interviewing 3Ls, and only 40% of those that did ultimately made job offers.

“My expectation is that this slow growth in entry-level recruitment activity will continue, but it will be some years before we see a return to the sort of robust recruiting levels we saw in 2006 and 2007,” Leipold said. “And as for summer associate class size, we may never see those numbers return to what they were before the recession.”

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