The conventional wisdom is that regulatory work including environmental, energy, food & drug, securities, health care, etc.; ip/technology; and bankruptcy are likely to pick up and recover more quickly than some of the other practices.
Since we are always better at what we like, I suggest that you identify two or three areas of practice from the aforementioned list. You might also say something along the lines of ''My primary interests are in food & drug, energy, and environmental law. However I am flexible and believe practicing in any area of the firm where there is a need for associates is an opportunity to learn.'' This is a great attitude to have and one any firm will appreciate in a first year associate.
Law firms are pretty savvy and I think that for the most part they took a more reserved approach in the numbers of offers that were extended to third years and former summer associates this past year. But you are very insightful to recognize that you are setting the tone for your relationship with your new employer and to approach that with care. Best of luck to you! - Lisa Pavia, Senior Recruiter, Washington, DC