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More Work, but Cocktails Too
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, an anointed crop of law students lunch at the 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 write a few research memos. At summer's end, the vast majority get lucrative offers for permanent employment. Then, a year later, the grind begins.
Some parts of this scenario still ring true (including 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. Today's 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. They're "telling us they want real training, real projects, real exposure," he says.
There are certainly things about the summer-associate programs -- internships mostly for students between their second and third years of law school -- that have stayed the same through the years. They still represent the main pathway for joining the world of big law firms. Most summer associates still get offers to come back and be real lawyers after they graduate. And they're still paid well (at the biggest firms in New York, the going rate for 2006 is around $2,800 a week, before taxes), fed well and generally told not to worry about their billable hours.
But changes in the marketplace have led to a new I-wanna-work attitude among some summer associates. With partnerships increasingly elusive, law students are focusing more on the experience they'll get at a firm before they eventually leave it. "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, 'Till death do us part.' " In addition, there's a growing view that law schools don't prepare students for the day-to-day realities of the practice of law, says Mary Gail Gearns, the national hiring partner at Bingham McCutchen in New York.
Summer associates are also savvier than their predecessors 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. Thanks to Web sites like Greedy Associates, they have access to chatter about salaries, billable-hour expectations and which partners to steer clear of.
Law firms are also more than happy to provide their summer associates with more substantive training. Pittsburgh-based Buchanan Ingersoll three years ago beefed up its mentoring efforts for those students whose midsummer evaluations show they need help. "It's what the students have begged for," says Greg Miller, the chairman of the firm's recruiting committee. "And there's nothing better than seeing a student really improve during the second half of the summer."
Other firms have added formal deposition training, mock trials, mock transactional projects and regimented writing tutorials. Howrey, based in Washington, D.C., runs a two-week "boot camp" in which it gives its summer associates intensive training that includes classes, depositions and a mock trial in front of partners and judges. Bingham McCutchen's offices in New York feature "shadow training," under which summer associates follow lawyers on a case or deal for several weeks. And Atlanta's King & Spalding recently added instruction on law-firm economics.
At the same time, firms have ratcheted back some of the more lavish wining and dining. Chicago-based Jenner & Block used to offer summer associates a Fourth of July cruise and golf outings. Now it has replaced many of its big events with more intimate ones, like small dinners at partners' houses.
The firms insist the change isn't driven by a desire to cut costs. Gibson Dunn and Jenner & Block say the cost of their summer-associate programs haven't gone down much, if at all, in recent years. Bingham McCutchen's Ms. Gearns says that any savings on social events have been offset by the cost of beefing up the firm's training program. "In a lot of ways, our program is much more ambitious than it used to be," she says.
That said, the law firms haven't taken all the fun out of summers. Burr & Forman, based in Birmingham, Ala., will drive its summer associates to Atlanta for a cocktail party and a Braves game. And Gibson Dunn will fly all of its summer associates to Los Angeles in July 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. And "we want them to get to know people along the way."
Days in the Lives of Summer Associates
(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)
WSJ.com asked four law students working at law firms for the summer to share their experiences for its "2006 Summer Associate Diary." Here are snapshots of what the four have found so far:
Marc Allon, 24 years old
Jenner & Block
In the five weeks he has been a summer associate, Mr. Allon feels he has already come a long way. At first, he explains, "you sort of feel like you're playing a game that everyone else is a professional at."
|Marc Allon found that delving into work at Jenner & Block reduced his anxieties.|
When he started at the Chicago firm, he says, "I'd wonder whether I was more lawyerly looking than another person, whether my tie was more of a power tie" than someone else's. But delving into work has reduced his anxieties. So has reminding himself of the firm's policy of offering jobs to most of its summer associates. "Nobody feels like they need to beat anyone in order to get an offer," he says.
Mr. Allon, who attends law school at the University of Michigan, got a taste of corporate mergers and acquisitions work right away: He helped put the finishing touches on General Dynamics Corp.'s recent acquisition of Anteon International Corp. "A couple times I'd sit back and say, 'Wow, I'm actually representing a $25 billion company,'" he says.
One early lesson: how detail-oriented and organized lawyers have to be. "I realized that I can't just throw a piece of paper somewhere and just sort of hope to find it later on, the way you do in law school," he says. "Good lawyers don't act that way." So Mr. Allon got serious, making a long list of everything going on in the deal and taking detailed notes.
He has also been wowed by the technology he has access to. "I kind of thought I'd get some hand-me-down computer," he says. "But we get every tool you could possibly need," including an IBM ThinkPad with a docking station, a big flat-screen monitor, and a personally issued Palm Treo.
On the social front, Mr. Allon says he doesn't feel much pressure to fit into one of the "cliques" that he sees forming among the summer associates, including the "gourmets" (those "intent on hitting all of Chicago's best restaurants") or the "party crowd," which likes to grab a drink or two after work. "There's a group of us [who] are a bit more sedate," he says.
"But it's not like we're the uncool kids who are being left out of things," he adds. During his first week, he took in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field from the Jenner & Block corporate box. He has also attended a lunch at which Colin Powell spoke, and, though he keeps kosher, he has enjoyed a steady stream of free lunches. "I'm eating a lot of fruit salads this summer," he says.
Carolyn Gleason Sanchez, 25
Quintana Law Group
For her summer associate experience, Ms. Gleason Sanchez didn't go the big-firm route. Instead, the University of Maryland law student opted to head back to Southern California, where she grew up and attended UCLA, to work for a four-lawyer start-up firm in Woodland Hills. It's run by Andres Quintana, a lawyer she met when she worked as a paralegal at his former firm.
|Carolyn Gleason Sanchez|
As the only summer associate, Ms. Gleason Sanchez is having an experience that's a bit different than the other three law-firm newbies the Online Journal is tracking. For starters, she hasn't been feted with theater tickets and fancy meals, nor has she been able to kibbutz, commiserate or party with peers.
But the upside for her is that she's getting to do a kind of work that lots of summer associates at larger firms don't. Earlier this summer, she drafted a motion in a patent-infringement case involving a roller-hockey puck design. She has also been given responsibility in seven other matters, one of which is a suit alleging potential health risks from using Teflon cookware.
All the work experience is making for some long hours. She typically gets in at about 9 a.m. and leaves between 7 and 8 p.m., she says. "Then I usually work for a couple hours at home before bed." Her family and her friends who are pursuing careers are sympathetic, she says. "The friends that have a harder time with it are the ones that aren't in the same place that I am yet."
Recently, she learned first hand how hectic a lawyer's schedule can be -- and how quickly it can change. She had been told she would be leaving late on a Monday for Chicago, where she would accompany her boss to a meeting on a case. But after a flurry of activity, the meeting was moved to July in Iowa. On top of that, she says, a hearing she was to attend that same Monday was rescheduled by the judge at the last minute. "So here I sit in a suit for no reason."
Matthew Duke, 25
Burr & Forman
At a recent summer-associate lunch at this Birmingham, Ala.-based general practice firm, the topic of job offers came up. "Immediately, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I am competing with these people for a slot,'" says Mr. Duke. And after the meeting, he says, his instinct was that he somehow had to outdo his peers. "In law school, there's only one way to be competitive -- beat out your fellow classmates."
But then the triathlete and former college soccer player realized that at a law firm, it's a different environment. "I can't control what [the other summer associates] are doing," he says, adding that he hopes to channel his competitiveness by working hard on his cases and trying to beat the other side.
The firm's hiring partner, Ed Christian, says Mr. Duke has little reason to worry. "It's a rare circumstance when someone in Matt's position doesn't get asked to come back for the next summer," he says.
Mr. Duke, who just finished year two of a four-year M.B.A./J.D. joint degree at the University of Alabama, has already had opportunities to prove himself. "I got thrown into the deep end on the first day," he says, referring to a reply to a response to an opposition to a motion to dismiss that he was asked to draft.
His first several weeks weren't all work. He spent a weekday on the golf course with other Burr & Forman lawyers, was taken out to several lunches at some of Birmingham's finest restaurants, enjoyed a couple of dinners on the firm, and won a few hands at the firm's annual poker tournament.
And recently, he had a eureka moment. He was watching a Burr & Forman litigation partner cross-examine the plaintiff in a case involving the use of an easement. "Vic just shredded him," Mr. Duke recalls. "I got an adrenaline rush just sitting there." But it wasn't just the lawyer's skill that impressed him. It was the recognition that even nice guys can be courtroom sharks. "Vic's the nicest, most humble guy around. But you go into that courtroom, and the bulldog comes out," Mr. Duke says.
Andrew Meyerson, 22
Dorsey & Whitney
One of the biggest kicks of being a summer associate in the New York office of this Minneapolis-based firm is the supply closet. It offers up Dorsey & Whitney-labeled items from page markers and pens to golf balls and T-shirts. "I was pretty pleased about the golf balls," says Mr. Meyerson.
He certainly needed them. Early in the program, he played golf twice in one week. He left work before noon one Monday to play with the New York office head, Bob Dwyer, as well as a Dorsey client and a friend of theirs at Rye Golf Club. Mr. Meyerson says the social dynamic was a bit like someone new tagging along with a set of old friends, and it wasn't his best round of golf. Nonetheless, he says, the managing partner gave him common-sense advice on how to stay on top of things at the office, in particular recommending that he always follow up with clients and other lawyers.
So far, Mr. Meyerson has worked on several assignments, most litigation-related. He says he picked the firm because of its intellectual-property practice, an area for which a strong technical background often comes in handy. He fits the bill: He majored in biomedical and electrical engineering at Duke University before deciding to attend law school at New York University.
Now he's awaiting his midsummer review, which is scheduled to take place this week. Mr. Meyerson says the five summer associates are generally under the impression that as long as they don't do "anything egregious," they'll get offers to come back.
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Corrections & Amplifications:
Carolyn Gleason Sanchez has been unable to kibitz with peers at work because she is the only summer associate at her law firm. This article incorrectly said kibbutz.