AT KIRKLAND & ELLIS, they had nameplates on their office doors and personalized firm stationery. At Arnold & Porter, they could play on the firm's squash courts and sip after-work drinks from the firm's open bar. Steptoe & Johnson topped a day of sailing with dinner at the Annapolis Yacht Club; Wilmer Cutler & Pickering offered a West Virginia rafting trip. There were boat cruises on the Potomac, lunches at the city's finest restaurants, dinners at partners' homes, tickets to Orioles games and Wolf Trap, outings to the firm country club.

The beneficiaries of this red carpet treatment were not high-placed government officials stepping through the revolving door, nor high-priced lawyers towing a lengthy roster of clients. They were law students, magically transformed for a few short months into "summer associates" at law firms here and across the country. And although September will return them to the reality of casebooks and corduroys, they spent their summer in pinstriped splendor, being wined and dined and wooed to return to the firm after they graduate from law school.

The lot of the law student -- at least the law student from a prestigious school -- is a far cry from that of the normal summer intern. I should know. I spent the summer working here at The Washington Post, earning $286.25 a week as an intern on the national desk, where the only perk was free doughnuts at the Monday staff meeting. But in what passes for real life I am a second-year law student at Harvard, or at least I will be when classes start Sept. 7. I watched my classmates leading the good life this summer, and plan to be a summer associate myself next year.

The whole process is mind-boggling. We are people who have worked hard and done well all our lives, compiling credential after credential to fatten our resumes. Swept along in this great momentum of achievement -- high school-valedictorian-graduates-summa- cum-laude-from-Ivy-League-school-and-ends -up-at-Harvard-Law, so the stereotype would go -- we are beginning to coast into the rewards.

Of course, the questing after credentials doesn't stop after we get into Harvard, known fondly to my friends this year as TLS -- The Law School -- partly to spoof the institutional pretentiousness, but also to pat ourselves on the backs for being there. Without really questioning why, we still fret about getting good grades, about making law review (The Law Review), about getting a job offer from one law firm that is marginally more prestigious than another, about clerking for an important judge.

But, grim pre-professional generation that we are, we law students have escaped that underlying fear that plagues many of our non-law peers: will we be able to support ourselves and live a comfortable life when we finally grow up? The summertime is the first tangible evidence that we can sit back and relax, at least a little, and our first taste of what life as a lawyer will be like.

Law students finishing their first or, more often, second year of law school and taking their fledgling steps as lawyers are welcomed to the corporate fold with open arms and pocketbooks. People as young as 22 and 23 earned about $650 a week at firms here this summer, and even more in New York, where salaries at top firms averaged more than $800 a week and have run up to $1,000, including housing subsidies and up-front bonuses, dubbed "suit bonuses" by some students who used the cash to help them dress the part.

The salaries are highest and the coddling most intense at Wall Street and Park Avenue law firms in Manhattan, although the New York hours are reputed to be more grueling than those in D.C. or elsewhere. Among the most lavish programs is that of New York's Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, the law firm of former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance. Simpson Thacher offers summer associates and a friend five nights on the town, courtesy of the firm, letting them choose tickets to any cultural event they want and spend up to $25 a person for dinner -- or else save up and blow a bigger bundle at once.

Sometimes everyone loses perspective. Last summer, law students earning a meager $700 a week at New York firms staged a mini-revolt when they discovered that their colleagues were earning the equivalent of up to $900 at other firms in town. The ensuing complaints drew results: Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison upped weekly salaries to $800 from $735; Kaye Scholer Fierman Hays & Handler added $70 to summer associates' $730 weekly salaries. Some of the same occurred this year: to keep up, Simpson Thacher added $25 a week to summer associates' $800 weekly paychecks in a retroactive mid-summer raise.

"I remember last fall I asked an interviewer what his firm's summer program was like and he said it was like all the other programs: it was fantasyland," says Patrick Carome, a third-year student at Harvard Law School.

"I find it kind of disgusting, frankly," says a former summer coordinator at a major New York law firm. The wining and dining may have leveled off this year, she says. "It reached epidemic proportions. You just try and top the other firm," she says. Summer associates, she says, "were eating three or four fancy lunches a week until it just got to the point where they were sated."

The reason for the lofty salaries and matching perks? Law firms are competing for the "top" students (read: law review; top 10 percent of the class) from the "top" schools (read: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, Virginia, Michigan, Georgetown, Pennsylvania, Berkeley and others). Firms believe, correctly or not, and perhaps because many of their own partners came up through the same ranks, that those credentials make for good lawyers. And the summer program is an investment in attracting those catches for good, and in having them return to Cambridge and New Haven and elsewhere with glowing reports of the firm.

"It's not really to woo them. We want people to enjoy their summer with us," says Steptoe & Johnson partner Ellen D'Alelio, who runs the firm's summer program.

But, noted Arnold & Porter lawyer John Kronstadt, one of two lawyers detailed to work on that firm's summer program, "summer associates are an important long-term resource for us." In addition, he says, "These are people who go back to school and will become sources of information to other students and perpetuate our ability to have high-quality people coming to work for us."

In fact, I watched one classmate agonize about what firm to sign up with for the summer and finally asked why he was making such a fuss about a mere summer job. His answer was that law students only get two summers to sample different firms, and that this was an important choice, since the firm he worked at this summer could be the firm he went to after graduation and the one he stuck with for life.

He was probably a bit more intense than most, but the fact of the matter is that most firm descriptions read alike -- the departments are securities, trusts and estates, litigation, corporate, tax, and more tax, one friend jokes. And so word of mouth can play an important role as students, who become adept at law firm lingo with amazing speed, ponder whether to go to Wilmer or Covington, Cravath or Paul Weiss.

I have mixed feelings about the whole summer associate experience -- probably a legacy of the first year of law school, where the main and indelible lesson seems to be that there are at least four sides to every argument. On the one hand, I wouldn't mind that nice, well- fed feeling. It's quite flattering to get letters from law firms inviting me in for an interview before I head back to school; to have employers courting me for a change, rather than the other way around. The Washington Post doesn't take its interns on boat cruises.

But it's slightly scary and unsettling to have doors open so easily, simply because I passed some magical cutoff point of LSAT scores and grades that entitled me to become a Harvard Lawyer. Though I'll gladly take the paychecks that brings, I'm not at all sure anyone should be paying me, or any of my classmates, that much money. I can't imagine that I will know enough law in another year to make my time worth $70 an hour, the rate at which one local firm billed summer associates' time this summer (although it didn't charge clients for every hour associates worked.)

And while I don't think that I or anyone else is fooled by summer perks into thinking that the free lunches last forever, I think perhaps, on some subconscious level, it makes the choice to join a corporate law firm that much easier. The trips to the country club and the theater and the ballet divert attention from the day-to-day work, which some of my classmates found dull. They remind us how comfortable it can -- or will -- be to practice corporate law, rather than scraping by with the low-paying public-interest jobs to which many of us came to law school professing devotion.

One law school friend, who came to Harvard talking about being a public defender, swallowed hard and wrote a brief this summer explaining why his firm's client, an asbestos company, shouldn't be hit with punitive damages in a lawsuit it lost over ruining a worker's lungs. Asbestos companies deserve lawyers, too, and the truth will out in the adversary process, as is drilled into us, but it was a little shocking to witness the change.

It's also a little shocking to discover what a big busines it all is. Law firms take their summer programs seriously. Many have full-time summer coordinators who help weed through resumes, scout out housing for those who are offered jobs, and help plan summer activities. And the planning begins early. One Harvard Law School student reports getting invitations to interview at firms in Cleveland, his hometown, before he had survived a single day of law school.

The firms send partners and associates to the schools for days of on-campus interviewing, often topped off with a cocktail party or dinner that offers a chance for further mingling. Some students are invited to the home office to take a closer look -- at firm expense, of course -- put up at top-class hotels and well entertained. "You hear a lot of cynical stuff about somebody saying, well, I think I'd like to spend the weekend in California, I guess I'll rip off this San Francisco firm," says one Yale Law School student.

It's easy to get cynical when you're that sought after. At Yale, according to Placement Director Gwendolyn Hachette, more law firms and other organizations signed up last fall for interviews than the school has students: 600 for a total enrollment of just 175 per class, although only 400 eventually came to New Haven due to lack of student interest in the others. Have the glut of lawyers and the decline in legal business, due to the recession and Reagan administration regulatory cutbacks, hurt Yalies? "Oh, no," Hachette says. "Our students are very much in demand."

At Yale and Harvard, in fact, the recruiting reached such a fever pitch last year that the faculty, annoyed at lecturing to empty rows as students were off interviewing or visiting firms on "fly-outs," moved to readjust priorities. At Harvard, where law school life often seemed to revolve around the placement office, the interviewing season was condensed and the administration decreed that fly-outs take place only during Christmas break. Yale called students back for classes a week early and will suspend classes during one week of marathon interviewing in October.

But it doesn't work that way all over, and perhaps that's the most distasteful part of the whole summer-associate game. Outside the Ivy League-type schools, summer job hunting is just that: a search, often long, hard and frustrating, before finding legal work. At Catholic University Law School here, for instance, just 60 law firms come to campus to interview -- one-tenth the number at Yale for a class of equal size. The placement office counsels students to print up 200 copies of their resumes, and, as a free service, will send out up to 125 letters and resumes per student to various firms.

"It's a pretty competitive market" says Michael Higgins, assistant placement director at Catholic. Students at Catholic aren't concerned about the perks, he says. "Right now they should be happy that they're working," Higgins says. "At Harvard they have two jobs for every student. We are fortunate to have employers come to our campus."

Those few law students who venture into summer jobs outside corporate firms also get a vastly different perspective. As a summer intern at the Environmental Defense Fund, for instance, second-year Harvard Law School student David Sklansky did his own Xeroxing, wore T-shirts and jeans instead of three-piece suits, and didn't get any of the perks his peers enjoyed. "One of the attorneys took me to lunch at a diner once," says Sklansky, a member of the Harvard Law Review. Still, he says, with a touch of the holier- than-thouness that is epidemic among public interest types, "I wouldn't have traded my summer experience for that of any of my classmates who are working for firms."

Adds Carome, who split his summer between Arnold & Porter, where he earned $650 a week, and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, where he was making $240, "It was culture shock to come to the Sierra Club."

The overwhelming number of law students work at corporate firms, however. Of 160 second-year students reporting their summer plans at Yale, just four students worked at government jobs, seven for public-interest organizations, and one at a legal-services office. One reason for the gravitation to law firms may be economic: with tuitions reaching $7,000 and $8,000, and with many students carrying college and law-school loans that can easily top $20,000, those high salaries can quickly disappear.

"The numbers are just phenomenal," concedes Susan Perkoff, a third-year student at Georgetown Law School, who spent the summer at Simpson Thacher. But, she says, "I didn't have a single summer suit, and by the time I got through paying for my suits and rent and assorted shoes and things. . . . I've got to admit, I lived pretty graciously this summer. But I got back and I put the money in the bank, and I wrote my tuition check yesterday, and there it went."

Summer associates' work is the basic legal drudgery of beginning lawyers: mostly research memos on a particular legal point for use in advising clients, writing briefs and the like. Firms make a special effort, however, to get their summer associates out of the library, often bringing them to depositions, trials, appellate arguments, and other events to get a sense of the outside legal world; many firms also schedule lunches where firm lawyers discuss their specialty -- tax law, communications, securities, etc.

Many of my classmates enjoyed playing lawyer for the summer. But I phoned a third- year friend spending the summer at a New York firm. "Everybody I know is miserable," she said. "They can't believe they're going to have to do this for the rest of their lives."

That terrified me. We have hurtled along on our fast track and we are finally beginning to see the results. And not only are some of us not liking what we find, we feel we have no choice but to keep on going regardless. Another friend experienced a mini-career crisis this summer, working for the first time at what she expected to do for the rest of her life, and being confronted with the sinking realization that she found it boring. By summers' end, through rationalization or conversion or something, she had decided that doing legal research and writing memos could be pretty interesting after all.

It's hard for me to know, since I haven't practiced a single day of law. But I keep reading stories about lawyers who are burned out, who look up from their U.S. Reports and Fed Supps after fives or 10 or 15 years and decide that they would really rather be doing something else after all. And I worry, as I type my resume and haul my dress-for-success suit to the dry cleaners to prepare for a season of interviewing, that the same will happen to some of us, after the thrill of country-club day has faded.