It looks as though large law firms are asking their most recent summer associates for a little patience as the firms try to figure out how they want to make offers this year.

While all eyes are on how many summer associates will receive offers from their respective firms, law school career counselors are hearing some firms anticipate taking longer with their decisions even though summer programs were shorter on average this year and wrapped up weeks ago.

Normally, this would be the time to track offer rates, Melissa Lennon, assistant dean for career planning at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, said. But 2009 is not normal.

Of the 20 or so firms she is tracking in and around the area, Lennon said, only four have given offers so far. Large law firms typically want to give offers to summer associates as quickly as they can once completing evaluations and assessing practice area needs, she said, because they then have to begin recruiting on campus for next summer’s class. They want the students who received offers in the summer to act as advocates during the fall recruiting season, Lennon said.

With some firms not hiring for next summer and others questioning the lead time between hiring summer associates and bringing them in as full-time attorneys two years later, firms are taking their time this year.

“Now, here in the real world in 2009, I think firms generally are going to wait as long as they can to make these decisions,” Lennon said.

Firms will weigh these decisions much more carefully and many are still deciding what their future hiring practices and needs will be, she said.

The latest example of a firm holding off on some of these decisions comes from Dechert, where there is a bit of a hybrid approach when it comes to making offers this year.

“We are extending offers to begin in fall 2010 to well more than half of our 2009 summer associates,” the firm said in a statement. “Hiring decisions on the balance of our 2009 summer associates will be deferred until after the first of the year. At that point or perhaps sooner, we expect to have a better understanding of the fall 2010 demand for entry-level associates. We hope and expect to be able to offer some of the deferred [summer] associates positions that would also start in fall 2010.”

Dechert had deferred the first-year associate class set to start in the fall of 2009 until either October 2009, March 2010 or fall 2010. So the firm is looking to manage the number of associates it has beginning next fall. It has not, however, said that it would refrain from on-campus recruiting this year. Dechert wouldn’t disclose the total number of summer associates it had across its U.S. offices this year.

“One of the challenges that I think the large firm folks would say has been a factor in this particular downturn has been a tradition in making those commitments so far in advance,” said Elaine Petrossian, Villanova School of Law’s assistant dean for career strategy and advancement. “By definition, if they have framed that early hiring as one of the factors that has made these economic circumstances so difficult, continuing to repeat that would seem a tough proposition.”

Petrossian said she would rather see more stable decisions occur later rather than firms make premature hiring decisions simply because that’s the way they had always done things.

“Waiting to see how things go might potentially, in their view, make sense,” she said. “I do not think entry-level lawyers are the factor that is causing the unraveling to the large law firm model, but I think that certainly there’s a feeling that trying to predict so far in advance is very difficult so that would explain to me in a very reasonable way why they would need to wait.”

NOT ALL HOLDING OUT

Not every firm is holding off on making offers to summer associates.

Sources have said Blank Rome gave offers to half of the 14 2Ls it had in its Philadelphia office this summer. That 50 percent offer rate is down from the 83.3 percent offer rate to its 24 Philadelphia summer associates in 2008, according to the Summer Associates 2009 supplement published in The Legal in May.

A firm spokesman confirmed the Philadelphia offer rate and said the rate firmwide was around 50 percent as well, with a slightly higher percentage in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office. All of these offers are good for a January 2011 start date. Blank Rome has delayed the start date for its 2009 first-year associates until at least January 2010 or after.

Somewhat similarly to Dechert, Blank Rome told those associates who did not receive offers that they would remain under consideration for a potential start date in January 2011.

Even though Morgan Lewis & Bockius has said any offers to this year’s summer associates aren’t good until 2011, the firm is moving ahead on a normal schedule for announcing those offers. It gave a “limited number” of offers, however.

The firm gave offers to 100 percent of its 15 2Ls in Philadelphia in 2008. The firm has 23 2Ls this year in the city. It wouldn’t give specifics in terms of offer rates for 2009.

Morgan Lewis disputed reports late Thursday that it didn’t give any offers in Washington, D.C., and said it is giving offers in every large office across the firm.

“Due to the difficulty of predicting 2011 staffing needs, we have today extended only a limited number of offers,” the firm said in a statement. “To assist those who have not received offers in seeking other opportunities, we will provide a letter to prospective employers that explains the circumstances surrounding our summer program, in the hopes that as these students enter the legal profession, they will be able to obtain employment opportunities commensurate with their qualifications and performance.”

Sources also said Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis and Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll have made offers to their classes. As with Morgan Lewis, any offers to Ballard Spahr 2009 summers will be good for a 2011 start date.

In 2008, Ballard Spahr had an 89.5 percent offer rate to its 19 2Ls and Schnader Harrison had an 85.7 percent offer rate to its 7 2Ls. The firms had 17 and 4 2Ls, respectively, in their 2009 summer associate programs. Schnader Harrison also had 1 3L.

Schnader Harrison said it wouldn’t comment on whether the firm gave offers or how many it gave. Ballard Spahr also didn’t provide comment.

Though there is an expected delay for when firms make offers, Petrossian and Lennon said it isn’t odd that some students wouldn’t know just yet. And some firms have intimated that they will be giving offers soon.

Cozen O’Connor was one of only a few local firms to increase the size of its summer program in 2009, moving from 12 summer associates in 2008 to 18 this year in Philadelphia. Of that group, 16 are 2Ls.

Thomas A. “Tad” Decker, president of Cozen O’Connor, said the firm would be making its official decisions on offers between now and Labor Day. He said he expects the offer rate to be similar to prior years. The firm is just making sure it has opportunities for all of the summers and deciding on which offices and practice areas would be the best fit before putting out offers, he said. In 2008, the firm gave offers to all of the 10 2Ls it had in its Philadelphia office. Of that group, nine accepted.

In looking at firms who had 10 or more 2Ls in their summer associate programs last year, the lowest offer rate was 66.7 percent at Reed Smith. After that, the lowest rate was 83.3 percent at Blank Rome. •