The recession hurt hiring of recent law-school graduates. Here, the University of Alabama Law School. The Tuscaloosa News/Associated Press

Here's some good news for law students set to graduate this year: The job-offer rate for those lucky enough to have landed a summer job at a law firm in 2013 is nearly as high as it was before the financial crisis.

Summer-associate programs are the traditional path to employment at big law firms. Students interview with dozens of firms in the late summer and early fall of their second year. Those who are selected spend the following summer working at a law firm in hopes of being offered a permanent position after they graduate.

The recession put a crimp in that pipeline. Many firms, facing a collapse in demand for their services, scaled back hiring programs, and summer associates faced greater competition for permanent slots.

But things are looking up for the class of 2014, at least by some measures, according to figures released last week by the National Association for Law Placement, a nonprofit group that tracks legal employment figures.

About 92% of law students who worked as summer associates last year received job offers. In 2007, before the financial crisis upended the legal profession, the offer rate was about 93%.

The hitch, of course, is that summer class sizes remain smaller than they were back in the boom years, so the overall number of job offers hasn't returned to prerecession heights.

Aarti Iyer, a 24-year-old student at the University of Chicago Law School, is one of the lucky ones. She spent last summer at New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, where she worked with a team of litigators doing legal research and other tasks. At the end of the program she was offered a position as a first-year associate, and she expects to start in the fall, after taking the bar exam.

"It's really gratifying to get that, after all the work over the summer," Ms. Iyer said.

The most recent NALP employment data shows a bump up from 2012, when 90% of summer associates got offers. And it is a significant improvement from 2009, when many firms slashed jobs and the summer offer rate hit a 20-year low. "This is a huge change from the stark offer rate of only 69% measured in 2009," says a 23-page report by the group, which polled 123 law schools and 389 law firms.

Finding full-time work as a lawyer remains a challenge for new graduates, who are often saddled with hefty student loans.

According to a separate NALP survey, only 64.4% of the 2012 law graduates for whom employment status is known got a job that required bar passage, the lowest percentage the group has ever measured. Just over half of 2012 graduates found work in private practice; typically such jobs account for 55% to 58% of postgraduate employment.

Law firms remain generally cautious about bringing on new junior lawyers. While entry-level hiring has increased since 2008 and 2009, the overall pattern has been "something like two steps forward and one step back," instead of a slow and steady return to prior levels, according to the NALP report released last week.

For example, while the job-offer rate is up for law students who spent the summer after their second year working at a law firm, things look a bit gloomier for third-year law students who lack that experience.

Only 16% of the firms the NALP surveyed reported trying to recruit third-year students who hadn't previously worked for them, down from 19% of respondents in 2012 and 53% in 2006.

Some of the back-and-forth is probably due to broader uncertainty in the legal industry. Law-firm revenue growth was modest last year—just 2.5% on average, according to a survey of 180 law firms by Citi Private Bank, although the 50 top-grossing U.S. law firms "materially outperformed" other segments of the industry.

"There have also been predictions that there will be further stratification in the market," James Leipold, NALP's executive director, said in the report, "so one thing we may be seeing in the numbers is that some firms are growing their summer programs while others are reining in class size or leaving it flat."

Adding to recent graduates' employment problems: In recent years a bumper crop of newly minted lawyers has flooded the market, forcing law students to be more entrepreneurial in their job hunts.

Justin Fiorilli, a third-year law student at Pennsylvania State University's Dickinson School of Law, has a job lined up after graduation at Donna E. Albert & Associates P.A., a small maritime law firm in Boca Raton, Fla., where he has worked most summers since his senior year of high school.

"It was never just a one-summer thing," said Mr. Fiorilli, 25 years old. "I think it's lifted a huge burden off my shoulders knowing that I have contacts and have developed relationships there," he said. "I can focus on school without having to worry."

Write to Jennifer Smith at