As it turned out, 2012 was not the year law firms returned to their robust, pre-recession approach to summer associate hiring.

The median and average numbers of summer associate offers that law firms made to 2Ls last fall fell slightly, according to data released by NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement. The percentage of interviews that resulted in summer associate offers also declined.

"We have seen some faltering in recruiting volumes this past fall, and that reflects the continuing faltering in the larger legal economy," NALP executive director Jim Leipold said. "If you read the client advisories coming from some of the private banks that are involved in law firm financing, it’s clear that 2013 is not likely to be dramatically better."

Firms will remain cautious about hiring as competition continues to drive prices for legal services down, he said.

It marked the fourth consecutive year that law firms have pulled back on entry-level hiring following the 2008 financial crisis. The nadir for summer associate hiring remains 2009, when a mere 36 percent of 2L interviews resulted in offers.) However, those numbers had been creeping back up, reaching 46 percent in 2011. Last fall, 44 percent of callback interviews resulted in offers.

Similarly, the median number of summer offers extended by law firms fell to eight, from 10 in 2011, while the average declined to 20, from 22. A slightly larger percentage of 2Ls accepted jobs—38 percent.

The hiring picture remained bleak for 3Ls. Only a 19 percent of law firm offices reported looking at 3Ls last fall, and the 280 callback interviews given to 3Ls resulted in just 82 job offers. Most 2012 summer associates received job offers from the firms for which they’d clerked—90 percent. But that represented a 1 percent decline over the previous year’s crop of summer associates.

No clear theme emerged regarding firms’ willingness to show up on campus to interview for summer associates. Some law schools and firms reported increases in recruiting activity, while others reported the opposite. Recruiting varied by region. For example, schools in the Mid-Atlantic region reported a greater decline in the number of law firms that recruited on campus, while schools in the Northeast—namely, New York and Boston—saw larger increases.

"I would expect flat and faltering to be characteristics of the entry-level law firm hiring market going forward, at least for the short and medium term," Leipold said. "Multiple experts have made the case that the legal market is not likely to return to pre-2007 levels, and the recruiting environment reflect that reality."

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