More New Jersey firms than ever are jettisoning their summer associate programs, the Law Journal’s annual survey finds.

While the number of positions stayed the same as last year and some already substantial programs have been beefed up, a few firms, whose programs have waned in recent years, pulled the plug in 2012.

Adding to the void are firms that abandoned summer hiring during the recession and have yet to start back up again. Seven of the 20 firms historically most active in summer hiring in New Jersey, or 35 percent, are without a program in 2012. Last year, there were four such firms; in 2010, six. All of the 20 reported summer hires in 2009 or 2008.

See chart: Summer Hiring at Large N.J. Firms

The three firms that took on no associates this summer after running 2011 programs are Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis in Woodbridge, Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus in Bridgewater and Reed Smith in Princeton.

Greenbaum Rowe and Reed Smith each took a summer-hiring hiatus in 2010, only to reinstate their programs last year. Greenbaum had two hires in 2011 and four in 2009 and 2008. Reed Smith had one in each of those years.

Norris McLaughlin’s program declined more gradually, with three summer hires in 2008, two each in 2009 and 2010 and one last year.

W. Raymond Felton, co-managing partner at Greenbaum, Rowe, says staffing decisions are made on a month-to-month basis in uncertain times, and it’s hard to commit to a summer class almost a year in advance. “You try to predict the future, but it’s always difficult to be staffed exactly for your needs,” he says.

Felton says his firm’s leaders “decided that we have enough young attorneys right now” and “enough work to keep them busy” without farming tasks out to summer associates. But the lack of associate hires in general is “unfortunately a sign of the times,” he says.

Four firms are in their third consecutive year without summer programs: Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll of Voorhees, McCarter & English in Newark, Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in Woodbridge and Wolff & Samson in West Orange.

Despite the suspended programs, the 20 firms surveyed brought on a 94 summer hires, the same total as in 2011. Firms took on 19 1Ls and 75 2Ls, compared with 16 1Ls and 78 2Ls last year.

It’s the third straight year that total hires have hovered around that level. There were 91 total hires in summer 2010 following the plummet from 118 hires in 2009 and 147 in 2008.

The average weekly salary for summer associates also rebounded after two years of decline. Average pay for 2012 hires is $2,304, compared with $2,231 last year and $2,259 in 2010. The 2012 number, a 1.6 percent increase over last year, is the highest since 2009, when the average was $2,310.

Lowenstein Leads

The largest programs again belonged to Lowenstein Sandler and Morristown’s McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter.

Lowenstein brought on two 1Ls and 16 2Ls. The size of the program has barely fluctuated, with 17 hires last year, and 18 each in 2010 and 2009. The firm hired 22 associates in 2008.

McElroy Deutsch, which ran last year’s largest summer program, takes the No. 2 spot in 2012 with three 1Ls and 12 2Ls. That number is down from 19 total hires last year, 13 in 2010, 15 in 2009 and 22 in 2008.

Archer & Greiner and Riker Danzig were tied for the third-most hires, with eight apiece.

Sills Cummis & Gross in Newark was fourth, with seven. Florham Park’s Bressler, Amery & Ross Bressler and Parsippany’s Day Pitney tied for fifth-largest with six associates each.

Lowenstein partner Raymond Thek, who oversees recruiting, says the firm’s perennially robust summer program is “clearly indicative of growth.”

While Lowenstein is open to other recruitment methods and hires graduates in the fall who didn’t participate in the summer program, the summer associates start out strongest, Thek says.

“There are many more very qualified candidates for every spot than there ever were before,” he says. “We have a great diagnostic sense of what people will do well with us.”

McElroy Deutsch partner Nicole Alexander, director of legal recruiting, agrees. The firm is getting hundreds of applications from some schools, is casting a wider geographic net and now conducts three, rather than two, preliminary interviews with the candidates, she says.

McElroy Deutsch runs smaller summer programs in its Connecticut, Delaware, Philadelphia, and Colorado offices, Alexander adds.

Besides Lowenstein, six other firms reported more summer hires in 2012 than in 2011: Archer & Greiner of Haddonfield; Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard in Hackensack; Day Pitney in Parsippany; Drinker Biddle & Reath in Florham Park; Fox Rothschild in Lawrenceville; and Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown.

The most substantial increase was at Riker Danzig, which hired two 1Ls and six 2Ls, after bringing on four associates last summer, all 2Ls. Archer & Greiner and Day Pitney each hired two more associates than last year, making those firms’ programs the biggest they have been since 2009.

Christopher Gibson, managing partner of Archer & Greiner, says firms move away from summer hiring if clients are less willing to pay for work done by first-year associates, or other recruiting methods take their place.

“We still believe the best opportunity to get a look at what an individual can do is over an eight- or 10-week period,” says Gibson, an alumnus of the firm’s summer program. “I never see us being in a situation where we don’t have a very vibrant summer program.”

Even Sills Cummis, whose seven summer hires were the fourth most in the survey, isn’t certain to continue it in the coming years. Managing partner R. Max Crane says the program has “been a good recruiting tool,” but “the market has changed.”

Traditional summer programs are necessary when there’s “an undersupply of lawyers and an oversupply of business,” but “right now, there’s an oversupply of lawyers,” Crane says.

A sense of tradition, an obligation to the local community and practicality drive the summer program, but when the number of qualified candidates greatly outnumbers position openings, long-term recruiting isn’t as vital, he says.

David Weinberg, assistant dean of career services for Seton Hall University School of Law, says the dearth of summer positions is consistent with students’ experiences in recent years. “I have not seen a significant further decline between this summer and last summer … but I think we’re still adjusting to the highs of a few years back,” he says.

More of them are getting their foot in the door in other ways, such as through part-time work firms are offering during the fall and spring semesters, Weinberg says. It is typically half-time — 20 hours per week — and the pay is generally lower than what traditional summer associates earn.

Other firms have pinned their hiring strategy to recruitment of associates who have completed judicial clerkships. Gibbons, of Newark, was the first large New Jersey firm to do that, abandoning its summer program in 2003 in order to focus on experienced clerks. In 2011, there were nine in its associate class.

Weinberg says it’s too soon to say whether firms will go back to traditional summer programs or continue using alternate recruiting methods.

“Time will tell us if this becomes the new normal.”