With the economy improving and big-firm summer associate hiring up overall in Texas this year, some large Texas firms that did without summer associates in 2011 are back in the game.

Firm consultant Bill Cobb says he’s not a bit surprised to hear that firms that suspended their summer associate programs in 2011 hired summer associates this year. He says cutting a summer program can harm a firm’s reputation and ability to hire law students. Plus, he notes, many Texas firms simply need to bring on more associates, and they rely on summer programs for the bulk of that hiring.

“If they’ve already purged their ranks, now they are looking back and saying, ‘We need to bring our younger people back up again’ and start working on that situation. Otherwise, they would be left with a hole,” says Cobb of Cobb Consulting in Houston.

Three large Texas firms — Strasburger & Price, Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr, and Greenberg Traurig — did not have summer associate classes in 2011 but have resumed programs this summer.

“It was part of the overall plan to start up this year, even when we were planning to take a year [2011] off,” says Scott Shanes, hiring partner for Dallas-based Strasburger. “In the discussions we had, the preference was not to take multiple years off in a row, because then you start to create some gaps in experience levels, and that can have an effect on associate training as well,” Shanes says.

The firm did not have a 2011 class because it wanted to be certain, when making its summer recruiting decisions in the fall of 2010, that it had enough work for its existing younger associates, he says.

The firm has seen an increase in business litigation and corporate work during the past year, Shanes says, so it upped summer associate hiring. The 221-lawyer firm has eight 2012 Texas summer associates

“In the marketplace there certainly is a need and a role for first, second and third-year associates,” he says.

Dallas-based Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr took a break in 2011 from its summer associate program to assimilate associate lateral hires and the first-year associates it had hired from its 2010 summer associate class, says chairman and CEO Glenn Callison.

The 112-lawyer firm hired seven 2012 Texas summer associates and is seeing increased activity across its practice areas including real estate, corporate, bankruptcy and litigation, he says.

Greenberg Traurig has three Texas summer associates this year, compared to none last year. The Miami-based firm has offices in Austin, Dallas and Houston.

In a written response to questions about the firm’s summer associate program, co-regional operating shareholder Doug Atnipp of Houston writes, “[T]he firm continues to grow in Texas as we are now over 100 lawyers strong in the state, and we will continue to look at opportunities for law students to work with us.”

However, Atnipp notes that the firm evaluates each year whether to operate a formal summer associate program.

For the second year in a row, summer associate classes at Texas’ largest firms are larger than they were the previous year, with the big firms filling 15 percent more summer associate jobs than they did in 2011.

Summer associates are the pool of applicants from which large firms hire most of their permanent first-year associates. Texas Lawyer invited the state’s 25 largest firms, ranked on “The Texas 100″ poster published April 28, 2012, to share data about their summer associate classes by participating in the Summer Associate Hiring Survey. [See related charts.]

Twenty-two of the firms responded and report having 569 slots for summer associates compared to 495 summer associate positions at the same firms in 2011.

Class sizes are larger at 13 of the firms, the same size at two firms and slightly smaller at seven firms.

Cobb says the Texas legal market is stronger than the legal market in some other areas of the country, so Texas firms need to staff up.

Increased business and an improving economic outlook drove Houston-based Baker Botts to increase the size of its Texas summer associate class to 80 students from 71 in 2011, says Van Beckwith, the hiring partner at the 725-lawyer firm.

“We’re excited about the prospects, and, in particular, we’ve seen some upticks in demand in certain departments that caused us, 12 months ago, to increase the [class] size slightly,” Beckwith says.

Energy transactions, global projects, real estate, corporate transactions, intellectual property and international finance are practice areas that began seeing more activity in the fall of 2011, when the firm was on school campuses recruiting students for 2012 summer associate positions, Beckwith says.

Dallas-based Haynes and Boone focuses on entry-level recruiting as its primary mechanism for growing the firm, says hiring partner Erika Blomquist. The 521-lawyer firm has 44 Texas summer associates, compared to 42 in the summer of 2011.

The summer associates will work in practice areas across the firm including transactions, real estate, litigation and international practices, she says.

“Our goal is for them to have a successful clerkship and hopefully have a career at Haynes and Boone,” she says.

Houston-based Fulbright increased its Texas summer associate class to 66 students in 2012, up from 50 students in 2011.

“We really cut back [associate hiring] for a few years and were very careful about replacing people who moved on or went in-house or whatever,” says Steven Pfeiffer, chairman of the 859-lawyer firm’s executive committee.

The firm’s department and practice group leaders forecast their 2012 summer associate needs in the fall of 2011, he says.

“We listened to office and department leaders and decided we needed to build up and so had that growth [in class size],” he says.

Looper Reed & McGraw is one of the large firms with a slightly smaller 2012 summer associate class, with six students for 2012 compared to eight in 2011.

The reason for the smaller 2012 summer group? A larger-than-usual first year associate group for the fall of 2012: nine new associates, which includes hires from the firm’s 2011 summer associate class, as well as 2010 summer associates who took judicial clerkships for a year before joining the firm, says James “Jamie” Ribman, hiring shareholder for the firm’s Dallas office.

The 111-lawyer Houston-based firm does not want to have more summer associates than potential permanent jobs, he says.

“We don’t want a situation where we’re hiring four summer associates, knowing that we can only make offers to two,” Ribman says. “That’s just not the way we do business.”

Related stories:

• Dos and Don’ts for Summer Associates

• An Officer and a Summer Associate

• In 140 Characters or Less, Would You Choose Law School Again?

• How to Assess and Impress in Summer Associate Season

• Bigger 2011 summer associate classes planned at several large firms in Texas