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Basic Training for Lawyers

May 25, 2006
The Wall Street Journal


As a summer associate at Washington, D.C.-based Howrey, John Dubiansky had what some law students wouldn't exactly see as an enviable experience -- spending two weeks sequestered in Virginia with 40 other would-be lawyers, sometimes working past midnight on a mock telephone-patent case.

But Mr. Dubiansky, now 28 and a first-year associate at the firm, says the unusual program, which Howrey calls "Bootcamp," was ideal for someone like him. Having already gravitated to patent litigation, the Harvard Law graduate saw the two weeks as a chance to focus his interests. "In school, the focus was on the law itself rather than on the practice of law," he said. "Howrey's program was about the tasks that litigators aspire to do, more on thinking on your feet, working with witnesses."


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Earlier this month, Howrey welcomed its sixth class to Bootcamp, which serves as its only summer program. While firms across the country are giving summer associates more training than ever before, Howrey has taken the idea a big step further. In an attempt to distinguish itself from typical big-law, wine-and-dine programs -- and to find people with a clear interest in litigation -- Howrey ships its summer associates off for two weeks of intensive training that includes classes, depositions and a mock trial in front of partners and judges. (See a related story on other law-firm training programs.)

It's not something for every law student, but that seems to be OK with Howrey. For starters, its summer program is only five weeks long: three at the firm and two at Bootcamp, compared with the standard eight to 12 weeks. The 580-attorney firm has a particularly concentrated practice, focusing on litigation, intellectual property and antitrust work. People who don't want to focus on litigation might not have the easiest time.

"Bootcamp was conceived of as a way of getting associates to the firm who better fit what we do," says Laura Shores, the firm's hiring partner. "We thought, why not at least find people who are excited about being litigators at the beginning of the process?"

It would be tough to find meaningful courtroom work for 40 students during the summer, so Howrey tries to approximate with a mock case. The firm sends its summer associates to a conference center in Maryland, where Bootcamp moved in 2005 (it used to be held in northern Virginia), and the students essentially live there for two weeks, although they can come and go as they please. It's much like staying in a hotel, with a swimming pool, fitness center and all meals provided.

The students attend classes during the day and have homework assignments -- such as discovery motions and deposition preparation for the mock case -- that they do in small teams. During the program's final days, the teams argue a full mock trial and have their work critiqued by partners and associates on the spot.

Is the program effective in bringing in more high-caliber summer associates? Law students, knowing they'll likely be slammed with work once they graduate, might not want to spend their last summers toiling just as hard, certainly not in an isolated environment. But Bootcamp applications have increased from about 500 for the 2002 program to nearly 800 this year, according to the firm.

There's still plenty of wining and dining at Howrey. The firm emphasizes social activities such as dinners and trips to sporting events, assuring prospective applicants that there is time for these activities during the three weeks before intensive training, when summer associates work in the firm's offices.

Ms. Shores said the shorter program doesn't mean the firm is necessarily spending less money on its summer associates.

"Actually the program itself has turned out to be pretty costly for us to run," Ms. Shores said. In addition to the $13,000 Howrey pays each student in salary, the firm must pay for the costs of the offsite program.

Big law firms often play follow-the-leader when it comes to innovating. But while other firms might be ramping up the training they give summer associates, they're not hopping on the bootcamp bandwagon. Why not? Catherine Dargan, a co-chair of the summer associate program at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., says Howrey's approach wouldn't work for her firm, in part because Covington's practice isn't as concentrated as Howrey's.

Howrey encourages its students to spend the rest of the summer working for another firm to compare experiences. But the firm is considering putting more emphasis on in-house work, allowing students to spend more than three weeks in the office but keeping the two-week intensive program.

In the end, though, programs such as Howrey's might point to problems with the in-firm work available to young associates in the first place.

"There are fewer and fewer really wonderful junior assignments," said Susan Manch, a principal in the D.C. legal-management consulting firm Shannon & Manch. "So training has to come more from formalized, structured courses."