With their on-campus interviews largely wrapped up, law firms are sorting through resumes to choose the select few who will get offers to fill the diminishing number of summer associate slots.

The students lucky enough to get call backs will have 45 days to make a decision whether to take firms up on what will be scarce job offers. Exactly how reduced firm hiring will be is unclear, but New York firms, including Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; Willkie, Farr & Gallagher; Kelley Drye & Warren and others say they plan to bring in smaller classes.

“I think the students are pretty smart and understand the economic realities and realize the summer programs are likely going to be smaller than in past years,” said Rosalind Kruse, the hiring partner at Willkie.

At Cravath, hiring partner Rowan Wilson said the firm is planning to hire “less than half” the number of law students it has historically brought on.

Cravath took on 160 summer associates in 2008 and it hosted 120 this summer. Mr. Wilson said this year’s class caught the firm off guard. While the firm made fewer offers due to the deteriorating job market, “historical averages of what frequency people accept our offers…flew out the window,” he said.

“We don’t know really what is going to happen with offers we make [this year],” Mr. Wilson said. “We could wind up with 10 summer associates, we could end up with 50 or 60 summer associates.”

Cravath could have skipped the hiring season entirely. But Mr. Wilson said the firm decided to go ahead in part because it anticipates typical associate attrition will return as the market improves. He added that the firm had a unique opportunity to pick up the top students, since all the other firms were reducing their hiring as well.

“We think the average quality of the summer class will be higher, even if the class is smaller,” Mr. Wilson said.

Skadden, the city’s largest private law office, also decided to cut in half its summer associate class (NYLJ, Aug. 25). The firm, which hosted 225 summer associates globally this year, will make all of its summer offers this year on Sept. 22. Other New York firms confirm expectations that they will be hosting smaller summer associate classes, though are hesitant to say how much smaller.

“I would anticipate, though we don’t have a picked number, that we would have a somewhat smaller class than yesterday,” said Kelley Drye managing partner James Kirk.

“It’s going to be off pretty dramatically, and it’s not clear things are going to bounce back next year,” said William Henderson, professor of law at University of Indiana and an expert on the study of law firms as businesses. “One of the things that have set the expectations [for large classes] that we’re backing away from is this Wall Street juggernaut, a vibrant structured finance, M&A practice. And that largely has dried up, and I don’t see that same juggernaut taking off again.”

Take the Offer, Now

Some law schools, in an attempt to get as many of their students employed as possible, are pushing them to accept offers sooner than the 45 days allowed by the National Association for Law Placement.

“Because firms are doing things on a rolling basis, students probably help their colleagues if they accept offers sooner rather than later, because it may open up more chances for more students,” said Petal Modeste, dean of career services at Columbia Law School.

Exactly what effect that will have is unclear. Cravath has made offers to more than a dozen students so far, Mr. Wilson said.

Skadden’s hiring partner, Howard Ellin, said “It’s sort of hard to know what the students’ reaction is going to be when the policy says you have 45 days and a bunch accept really early.”

And some students seem hesitant to play along.

The only reason to decide more quickly would be that “you don’t have to go to those other law firms, and that frees up your schedule,” said Vivek Chandrasekhar, a student at New York University School of Law, who interviewed with 22 firms and has had some call backs.

Students are largely realistic about the job market. Lawyers and students report that this year questions during on-campus interviews have focused much less on the perks of summer programs. In the words of one partner conducting interviews, “There’s not a cocky one in the bunch.”

“People understand at the law student level there’s not much we can do to control it so we’re just going to put our heads down and try to focus on getting a job,” said William Evans, a 25-year-old law student at NYU.

But landing a summer position is no guarantee of a full-time offer in fall 2011 after graduation. At Weil Gotshal, those students who do get offers at the end of next summer are expected to be deferred to 2012.

“We anticipate that our class size will be smaller than it was in the summer of 2009,” a spokeswoman for Weil Gotshal said in a statement. “We expect that those summer associates receiving offers at the conclusion of next summer’s program will start work with the firm in January 2012, together with those 2009 summer associates who accepted our deferral package.”

Weil Gotshal had 97 summer associates this year in New York out of 170 nationally.