As law firms wrap up recruiting of next year's summer interns - and by definition the lawyers who will join them in entry-level positions in 2012 - hiring managers say there has been a subtle shift in the mix of character traits and skills that define successful candidates.

While grades, class rank, and other academic indicia still compose an iron triangle of key credentials, firms also are focusing on life experiences and emotional qualities deemed to be just as critical to career success.

Recruiters say they tend to look extra hard at students who have had some business experience before entering law school, and during interviews, they more and more probe for hints of the grit needed to overcome hurdles.

"The big thing that we have done over the last year is we have changed our interview process so that we are seeing fewer candidates but investing more time in [interviewing them]," said Jason M. St. John, the hiring partner at Saul Ewing L.L.P. "We think that by really delving into situations in their lives, both positive and negative, we will gain key insights into what they are like as people."

The 250-lawyer firm, which recently completed interviews for its summer associate program, uses what is known as a behavioral approach to select candidates for the positions.

Interviews are less free form than in the past, when a partner might have begun with the question, "Tell me about yourself." The focus now is on critical junctures in a job candidate's life - tough obstacles that had to be overcome or particularly satisfying accomplishments - and how they handled those situations. The task is to draw parallels between the candidates' life experiences and how they might function in the law firm.

The firm has published a manual for the 25 lawyers at Saul Ewing who interview job candidates, outlining the approach with sample questions and interviewing techniques. The lawyers are trained in interview techniques, and senior partners as well as younger lawyers conduct interviews, with the aim of getting a more accurate picture of how the candidate might fit in at the firm.

St. John says one important objective is to find lawyers whom their clients - chief executive officers and other business managers - will appreciate.

Next year's class of summer associates has its share of academic overachievers, with full resumés of extracurricular activities. But it also includes students who, besides having top grades, are starting second careers. One is a mother with young children.

For law firms, summer-associate programs are key recruiting tools because they effectively function as pipelines for entry-level lawyers.

During the boom years, which came to a crashing halt with the collapse of financial markets in 2008, big law firms competed furiously among themselves to hire students from top law schools, and thus had less leverage. But when the demand for legal services declined, the advantage shifted to the firms.

The firms, in turn, came under pressure from clients to improve productivity, especially among the ranks of green lawyers, and show why young, relatively inexperienced lawyers should be working on their matters.

Eric Kraeutler, the hiring partner at Center City's Morgan, Lewis & Bockius L.L.P., said the recession had caused the firm to focus more intensively during interviews on how candidates might relate to clients. There is no profile of an ideal candidate, he said, because the firm has so many diverse needs, but life experiences play a prominent role.

"I am more interested in explaining decisions in their lives than in necessarily the decisions that they made," he said.

At Greenberg Traurig L.L.P., an 1,800-lawyer firm based in Miami with offices in Philadelphia, senior partners typically do the job interviewing because they have a better sense of what qualities are needed to succeed at the firm and eventually make partner, said Bradford Kaufman, cochair of the firm's national securities litigation group and one of its top recruiters.

He said the firm, while focusing intensely on academic credentials, also looks hard at candidates with business experience. He is particularly impressed by job candidates who worked to pay for their tuition.

"It is no longer enough to be a great thinker, writer, and researcher, where you spend countless hours thinking about creative solutions to a client's problem and then, at the end of the day, you give them a huge bill for the enormous amount of time that you have spent," Kaufman said. "You need to try and understand what the client is trying to accomplish, and without that you are not going to succeed."