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Getting Down to Business

Fewer Boat Cruises, More Law
For Law-Firm Summer Associates

May 25, 2006
The Wall Street Journal

All play and no work. That's the common conception of summer-associate programs at the nation's biggest law firms. For about three months, the thinking goes, the firms bestow upon an anointed crop of law students a taste of the good life. They lunch at the city's best restaurants, move from one open bar tab to the next and take in baseball games from the firm's box seats. When they're not too busy with their sushi-making classes and scavenger hunts, they do a few research memos. At summer's end, the vast majority get lucrative offers for permanent employment.

A year later, the grind begins.

Some parts of this conception still ring true (especially the sushi-making classes). But these days, summer associates at many firms are actually getting a little more training and a little less big-scale entertaining, say hiring partners, legal recruiters and summer associates.

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"Twenty years ago, some firms seemed to compete on the extravagance of their social events," says Mary Gail Gearns, the national hiring partner at Bingham McCutchen in New York. Ms. Gearns says she once attended an event hosted by a large New York firm at a partner's home in which "waiters in white gloves" served everyone. "Back then, it was much more of a party atmosphere."

But these days, summer associates "don't seem to want more lavish entertainment or more parties," says Chris Dusseault, the national chair of the summer-associate program at Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has cut back on the number of big events that include everyone in the summer class, outings like movie screenings and days at the racetrack. The summer associates "are telling us they want real training, real projects, real exposure."

The I-wanna-work attitude is partly a response to changes in the marketplace: With partnerships increasingly elusive, law students are focusing more on the experience they'll receive at a firm before they eventually leave it. Also, thanks in part to the likes of Internet discussion boards and other venues, summer associates are better-informed and savvier than their counterparts of years ago about what's typically seen as the bait-and-switch nature of the summer program -- 12 weeks of fun in the sun, followed by the long winter that is associate life.

Much about the programs -- private-sector internships mostly for students between their second and third years of law school -- has stayed consistent throughout the years. They still represent the main pathway for joining the world of big law firms. As was the case a generation ago, most of the summer associates in a given law school summer class get offers to come back and be real lawyers after they graduate. They're paid well (at the biggest firms in New York, the going rate for 2006 is around $2,800 per week, before taxes), fed well, and are generally told not to worry about their billable hours.

But firms say the summer associates want more substantive training. And the firms are more than glad to give it to them. Take Pittsburgh-based Buchanan Ingersoll. Three years ago, the firm beefed up its mentoring efforts for those students whose midsummer evolutions show that they need help. "It's what the students have begged for," says Greg Miller, the chair of the firm's recruiting committee. "And there's nothing better than seeing a student really improve during the second half of the summer." Laurie Lenigan, Buchanan Ingersoll's director of legal recruiting, says the firm has room for all the summer associates to get permanent offers, but that a student who fails to right the ship after the halfway point reduces his or her chances at an offer.

Other firms have, in recent years, added formal deposition training, mock trials, mock transactional projects, and regimented writing tutorials. Bingham McCutchen's offices feature "shadow training," where summer associates follow lawyers on a case or deal for several weeks. And in addition to formalized training on research and writing, Atlanta's King & Spalding recently added to its summer program instruction on law-firm economics. (See a related article on one firm with a "bootcamp" program.)

At the same time, firms have ratcheted back some of the more lavish wining and dining. Chicago-based Jenner & Block used to have a Fourth of July cruise and golf outings for its summer associates. "But we got feedback that the summer associates wanted fewer full summer class social events," says John Cox, the co-chair of the firm's summer program. The firm has replaced many big events with more intimate events, like smaller dinners at partners' houses.

The firms insist the change is not driven by a desire to cut costs: Both Gibson, Dunn and Jenner & Block report that the price tags on their summer associate programs haven't gone down much, if at all, in recent years. Bingham McCutchen's Ms. Gearns says that any savings the firm has experienced on social events have been offset by the cost of beefing up the firm's training program. We may have changed our focus," she says, "but in a lot of ways, our program is much more ambitious than it used to be."

"For the biggest firms, it's really not about cost," adds Peter Zeughauser, the head of the Zeughauser Group, a Newport Beach, Calif., consultancy to law firms. "The summer associate programs are all about making good first-impressions on their future lawyers. They're willing to spend to make sure they get that right."

Heather Richardson started her summer associateship in Gibson, Dunn's Los Angeles office last year. "I really wanted to see how the firm's lawyers went about getting their work done," she says. "I wanted to see if it meshed with my style." Apparently it did. She got an offer and will start as a first-year associate this fall. Ms. Richardson says that feeling comfortable at the firm was vital to her. "It's a big commitment to accept an offer," she says. "I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice."

Is Ms. Richardson's practical-minded attitude really that different from those who passed through in the 1980s? Absolutely, say those familiar with both eras. For one thing, it's harder than ever to make partner nowadays at the biggest firms, so many entry-level associates want to make sure they'll get good training (read: transferable skills) during their first few years at a firm. "Associates understand that they're responsible for the trajectory of their careers," says Sheri Michaels, senior managing director with the New York office of Major, Lindsey & Africa, a legal search firm. "It's no longer 'til death do us part at a firm."

Today's associates also have the benefit of the Internet. On Web sites like Greedy Associates and the bulletin boards on Infirmation.com, they can find information about salaries, billable-hour expectations, and which partners to steer clear of. As a result, say several senior lawyers, the summer associates have more realistic expectations about what to expect at a law firm.

Further, there's a growing recognition among both students and law firms that law schools don't prepare students for the day-to-day realities of the practice of law, says Bingham McCutchen's Ms. Gearns.

That said, the law firms haven't taken all the fun out of summers. Clifford Chance's New York office will take all of its summer associates to the Hamptons for a Saturday picnic at a bed and breakfast. Burr & Forman, based in Birmingham, Ala., will drive its summer associates to Atlanta for a cocktail party and an Atlanta Braves game. And in July, Gibson Dunn will fly all of its summer associates to Los Angeles for a weekend of social events and firm presentations. "We want the summer associates to have a good time," says Gibson, Dunn's Mr. Dusseault. "But we want them to get to know people along the way."