Career development officials at six Texas law schools say some large and mid-sized Texas firms are downsizing their recruiting plans for next summer in the wake of stock market upheaval and the nation’s liquidity crisis, while other firms are considering such moves.

At 280-lawyer Gardere Wynne Sewell, managing partner Stephen D. Good says the firm will reduce its summer associate program from 31 law students in 2008 to about 25 in 2009.

At the end of this past summer, the firm offered associate positions for the fall of 2009 to 19 students — 61 percent of the summer associate class. Usually, the firm offers associate positions to 75 percent of its summer associates, he says. To return to an offer rate of about 75 percent, the firm will invite fewer students to work at the firm during the summer of 2009, he says. “We’re trying to be careful.”

Economic conditions, he says, have prompted more students to accept full-time job offers, and the firm wants to make sure it hires only what it needs.

At 844-lawyer Baker Botts, Rachel Koenig, firmwide director of recruiting and development, says the 2009 summer associates class “won’t be quite as big a class as this year’s.”

In the summer of 2008, Koenig says, Baker Botts employed 152 law students, both first- and second-years, as summer associates. The Houston-based firm made offers to about 88 percent of the summer associates (who are now third-year law students) for associate jobs starting in the fall of 2009.

But next summer, the firm may not invite as many summer associates, partly because Baker Botts management wants to maintain a high offer rate for associate positions in the fall of 2010, Koenig says. Given economic conditions, she says, any prediction of what the firm will do nearly a year from now is difficult. “We have to really, really polish our crystal ball,” she jokes.

Additionally, the firm wants to have enough interesting work for the students, she says. If financial transactions continue to be slow, the volume of work may be down. “We want to be sure that we have work to keep them busy,” she says.

At Dallas’ Slater & Matsil, an intellectual-property boutique, for example, founding partner Ira Matsil says that, given the downturn in the economy, he’s debating whether to hire any summer associates for 2009. The firm has had a summer program for the past three years.

“It’s the cost and also the problem that, as a boutique with only 18 [professionals], we don’t have the time or the energy to go out with the summer associates all the time,” says Matsil.

In the past, the firm had hired three law students as summer associates and offered at least one of them an associate position the following year. Next year, Matsil says, the firm may skip a summer program, and he’s not sure if it will hire a new associate.

At Cantey Hanger, managing partner Pollard Rogers is not ruling out the possibility of trimming the firm’s 2009 summer associate program. The 78-lawyer firm has offices in Fort Worth, Austin, Southlake and Dallas. As of now, Rogers says, the firm plans to hire six or seven law students for the summer of 2009, as it did in 2008.

At other firms, however, managing partners adamantly stress that there will be no downsizing of summer associate programs.

“We are planning for a bit larger program than last year,” says Joseph Dilg, managing partner of Houston’s Vinson & Elkins, which had 110 law students in its summer program in 2008.

Melinda Blackwell, one of the founding partners in Dallas’ Brusniak | Blackwell, says her seven-lawyer firm hires four second-year law students to work as summer associates and usually hires one to return as a first-year associate the next fall. The firm plans to follow that pattern in 2009. Brusniak | Blackwell focuses on tax matters, and recessionary trends will actually drive up business for tax lawyers, Blackwell says.

Impact on Students

The news that some firms may pare down summer-associate programs doesn’t surprise law school career development officials.

Arturo Errisuriz, assistant dean of career services at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth, says he has “heard a buzz around the water cooler” about firms pulling back.

At Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas, Karen Sargent, the assistant dean of career services, says, “It is no secret that law firms are reducing the size of summer programs.”

Sargent says some smaller firms had signed up to attend Dedman’s on-campus recruiting events this fall but canceled because of the economy. However, the total number of employers recruiting on campus this fall totaled about 80, the same as during the fall of 2007, she says.

Officials at six Texas law schools are reluctant to identify firms that are scaling back recruiting or hiring. But the career services people say that while the number of employers at on-campus recruiting events this fall has held steady, they aren’t sure if those visits will lead to as many summer positions as last year. Officials at Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law, St. Mary’s University School of Law and South Texas College of Law did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Law school recruiting officials don’t know yet how offer rates to students who just finished summer clerkships compare to offer rates in 2007.

In a proactive mode, many of the law school career program directors tell students to beef up their résumés and skills by obtaining part-time jobs at firms during the school year so they will be more competitive in a tough job market.

“We are reaching out to small and mid-sized firms for our students, because we know in this market, you need to,” says Rhonda Beassie, an assistant clinical professor and assistant dean of career development at the University of Houston Law Center. She says her students are not as aware of a possible downturn in the hiring market “as I would like them to be.”

At the University of Texas School of Law, David Montoya, the assistant dean for career services, says that, as in 2007, nearly 700 employers, including multiple offices of national and regional firms, attended a fall on-campus recruiting event. UT’s law school has roughly 1,300 students.

Montoya says he had heard enough stories about firms pulling back that he lowered his expectations from last year for students’ prospects for summer associate as well as full-time jobs. But Montoya doesn’t have any hard data to confirm his impressions. “We’ll get that by the end of the semester,” Montoya says.

For many law students at UT, Montoya says, the problem remains an enviable one: Which among the many job offers should they choose?

At Baylor Law School, Heather Creed, the assistant dean of professional development and student relations, says the number of employers recruiting on campus this fall is the same as last year. But she says some third-year students have returned from summer clerkships surprised they didn’t receive offers for full-time associate jobs for the fall of 2009.

At Texas Tech University School of Law, Julie Doss, an assistant dean for career services, says she too has heard about more third-year students who didn’t get job offers after working as summer associates at big firms.

Some students also have detected a shift in the job market.

Jared Tong, who expects to earn his J.D. from the UH Law Center in 2010, says he has heard from other students and recruiters that several large firms have reduced the size of their summer programs. But with an interest in intellectual property, Tong isn’t facing a job shortage at the moment; his dilemma is choosing between two offers for the summer of 2009. He declines to name the firms.

Kyle Friesen, who expects to graduate from UT in 2009 and is chief articles editor for the Texas Intellectual Property Law Journal, has friends who have not received offers from the firms where they worked as summer associates this year. Most of those students clerked in Austin, he says.