At a time when some big firms are trimming their summer associate programs, at least two utilities are doing just the opposite.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s legal department last year launched a pilot four-week summer associate program in San Francisco. This year, the utility company is expanding it to eight weeks.

Unlike law firm summer programs, which are typically designed to woo participants to a job right out of law school, PG&E’s program is more broadly meant to give lawyers-to-be experience in the regulatory field. It’s also a chance for law students to try their hand at in-house work.

Conceived by the 87-lawyer department’s diversity committee, the target audience is students who have demonstrated a commitment to diversity, by, for example, volunteering in Big Brother or Big Sister programs or talking about college to students at high schools with high dropout rates.

“We haven’t hired people right out of school in 20 years or more,” PG&E’s Corporate Counsel Nicole Harris said. “This is a way to give people experience and opportunities to learn about areas they wouldn’t normally be exposed to, and use it to take to the next job.”

Harris said PG&E hatched the program partly in response to its outside counsel, who complain that a dearth of young minority lawyers with energy law or regulatory experience plays a role in the lack of diversity in their own ranks.

“Law firms tell us they can’t find diverse law students that know something about utility and regulatory work,” Harris said. “This helps address that issue.”

Summers at PG&E are paid $6,000 per month. The utility company has budgeted for the hire of four summers this year, like last year, Harris added.

PG&E, like other utility companies regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, is required to file annual reports to the CPUC outlining money spent on diverse outside service suppliers, including legal counsel. Diversity is also a core value at PG&E, Harris said.

Other utility companies run summer associate programs, including Sempra Energy and AT&T.

AT&T’s Isabelle Salgado, general attorney and associate general counsel based in Reno, said that like PG&E, her company also seeks to hire attorneys who understand the business and reflect the company’s diversity-related values. This year, AT&T is expanding its programs to cities it has recently entered through mergers, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis and Dallas, Salgado said. It doesn’t fill full-time positions from the program.

“Utility regulation and telecommunication technologies are areas where you need a fair amount of focused expertise,” she said. “We realized that we could do something to help foster the development of attorneys who were interested in and knowledgeable about our business, and we would like to see that they come from a diverse pool of applicants.”

Salgado credits William Drexel, former senior vice president, general counsel and secretary-West, with establishing the summer associate program three years ago. AT&T hires two or three students who have finished their first year of law school for eight weeks during the summer.

Sempra, whose program launched in 1985, hires between 12 and 25 associates for three-month stints each year, according to a company spokeswoman. The purpose of the program is to both recruit future hires and to boost diversity in the department, she said.

Diana Leon, a second-year at University of San Francisco School of Law who summered with PG&E last year, said she learned about the program through a mass e-mail sent out by La Raza, a minority student group.

Leon said the utility’s program offered a window into an in-house legal environment that isn’t easy for young lawyers to come by. Corporations typically look to hire those with law firm experience, even for internship positions, she noted, but PG&E’s program didn’t have that requirement.

In her four weeks with PG&E, Leon said, she prepared a mock CPUC general rate case, complete with witnesses, and presented findings to students interning at the CPUC, AT&T and Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold.

The general rate case probably reveals the most about a utility company’s business to students, Harris said, because it shows how the company’s funds are allocated.

Leon, a Mexican-American who graduated from a Salinas high school she described as “99.9 percent Mexican,” said she was shocked to see how few other minority students she found on campus at Santa Clara University, where she earned her undergraduate degree. “I really wanted to be a part of [PG&E's program] because I understand . . . how few minority representatives the legal profession has,” she said.

Leon said she believes that the experience will make her stand out to future employers. She is waiting to hear from three corporate in-house departments about summer employment in 2008.

“People are very impressed seeing PG&E on a resume,” Leon said. “It opens up the door a lot more for getting another job in an in-house environment.”