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My Very Special Summer

by Anna Schneider-Mayerson and Jesse Wegman Published: June 19, 2007

This article was published in the June 24, 2007, edition of The New York Observer.

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Photo: Lou Brooks

Each May, thousands of second-year law students from around the country descend on New York’s largest and most prestigious corporate firms for two-plus months of eating, drinking, Web-surfing and perhaps a little casework—a sacrifice they solemnly accept for the sum of more than $3,000 a week. This is the life of the summer associate.

It all culminates in The Offer, when the firm formally invites its summer associates back for real work the following year. Offer rates at most of the top firms hover around 100%, a statistic that leads many summer associates to wonder what, exactly, they would have to do to blow it. More than a few have attempted to find out.

Consider Aquagirl: a perky law student from the University of Virginia who, in 2005, got tipsy at a fundraiser at Chelsea Piers, took off her dress, handed it to a partner (by one account), and jumped into the Hudson. Almost before the Coast Guard had fished her out, it seemed, the story had ricocheted off law blogs around the country. (The nickname was bestowed later, by the popular blog AboveTheLaw.) Was this, finally, the Holy Grail—the act that BigLaw simply could not, would not, tolerate?

One might argue, if one were an aspiring lawyer, that Aquagirl’s act was in fact quite sane. After all, the average summer associate is wracked with anxiety, knowing that this odd simulacrum of law-firm life is really just a big buttering-up for what comes next: the 15-hour days, the Friday-afternoon BlackBerry vibrations, the canceled Hamptons weekends, the three-month document-review projects in Dallas.

The firms all know this too, of course, and so they have paved the road to the land of BigLaw with as many Nobu lunches, booze cruises and after-parties as they can afford. The result is that summer associates—who are coached relentlessly on what not to do at their firms—are given plenty of opportunities to do precisely those things. Will this year’s crop make it through with offers intact?

Oh, and Aquagirl? She’ll be starting at Arnold & Porter’s D.C. office in the fall (don’t worry—the Potomac is warm well into October).

Events

The scavenger hunts, cocktails at the Central Park Zoo, cooking classes, wine tastings: It seems that every firm around town got the memo.

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, known as a quirky, cool place (for a firm), recently hosted an affair on the roof of the Hotel Gansevoort, with an after-party continuing late into the night at the nearby Level V. “Eventually they tried to move us on so the cool people could get in,” confided one self-conscious attendee. (Citing firm policies against talking to the press, all the associates interviewed insisted on anonymity.)

The polished Davis Polk & Wardwellians have a swish dinner at the Rainbow Room—cutting loose is highly discouraged—and associates can even petition for reimbursement for joint manicure/pedicure bonding sessions with summer associates. “We get people who are very nice and pretty conservative,” said one associate of Davis Polk. “It’s full of people who know what’s appropriate and what’s not. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t survive here.”

Hard-partying Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom cadets, who work out in the company gym with firm-issued outfits, will be donning “festive attire” for dinner and dancing at Rockefeller Center. It’s nicknamed the Skadden Prom.

And aren’t lawyers the kids who were picked last for teams in gym class? Greenberg Traurig’s young’uns will take revenge in a dodgeball tournament, while partners and summer associates at Kaye Scholer squared off recently in a Nintendo Wii tournament in the firm’s conference room. The “sports”? Tennis, boxing and baseball.

Legends

 

Hard to believe it’s been two summers since Aquagirl made her waves. But she was only one in a long line of boundary-pushers. Before her in the Summer Associate Hall of Infamy is Jonas Blank. While a summer at Skadden in 2003, he accidentally sent 40 fellow lawyers an e-mail intended for a friend. Just making dinner plans, right? Not exactly. “I’m busy doing jack shit,” he wrote. “Went to a nice 2hr sushi lunch today at Sushi Zen. Nice place. Spent the rest of the day typing e-mails and bullshitting with people.” Mr. Blank worked at Skadden until this spring.

The summer is still young, but a fellow Skaddenite has already emerged as this year’s legendary associate. According to blog posts on AboveTheLaw, the unidentified summer successfully charged $3,000 worth of drinks at a firm after-party at the Lower East Side bar Libation. Like clockwork, gleeful colleagues forward the details of these hijinks to office inboxes citywide. New York thanks them.

Law Schools

Law firms are growing, but the size of classes at law schools is holding steady, or even declining. As a result, top law schools say that firms are reaching deeper and deeper into their classes, and those a step below say they are getting interest from firms who haven’t expressed interest in the past.

According to Irene Dorzback, the assistant dean in the office of career services at N.Y.U. School of Law, the big New York firms would have found themselves 20 to 30 percent understaffed had they limited their summer hiring to the top schools. So they have stepped up their recruiting efforts in response—students from schools (and countries—hello, Canada!) that were rarely represented at the top firms are suddenly finding themselves being courted aggressively. Firms are even going after students who have transferred from lower-ranked schools to first-tier schools … before those students have set foot in their new classrooms.

“What’s new is the volume is bigger, which means our students have more choices,” said Joan King, the director of career services at Brooklyn Law School.

Numbers

Just as the top firms pay associates in lockstep with each other, the weekly salaries for New York summer associates at the top firms are more or less identical. At Skadden, which has 160 summers in its New York office alone, summers take in $3,100 a week, which approximates the pay of a first-year associate.

The number of summers being hired has also grown dramatically in the past few years. In 2004, New York firms employed 2,321 summers, according to Ms. Dorzback, This summer, that number is 2,813—a 21 percent increase.

Charity

“Summers”—as these folks are so sunnily called—might be queasy at the thought of defending the R.J. Reynoldses and Bernie Ebberses of the world. But they can massage that conscience with pro bono work. And also get hammered for the cause! The organizations who receive these efforts often hold special fund raisers, like the Legal Aid Society’s Summer Associates’ Club Event, where firms including Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz paid $150 a head for their summers to attend a bash at T New York.

For those who want to get (in the words of one associate) “all Birkenstocky” at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, there’s a program called Chow for Charity: If summers and associates go out for a lunch that costs $15 or less per head, the firm donates the other $45 of each person’s lunch allowance to charities including Legal Aid, inMotion and Human Rights First. For some, this is an appealing option: “It’s great for [the firms] to be able to say, ‘We realize these $60 meals are sort of stupid, so we give money to something good and everyone is happier,’” says an associate. Noblesse oblige never tasted so much like falafel!

Summers at Proskauer Rose will be heading to New Orleans to help build housing with Habitat for Humanity. “Last summer it was described as being the best experience of some people’s lives—let alone the summer,” recalled Ira Bogner, the co-chair of the firm’s summer program committee.

And being green is chic: This year, Skadden initiated a program optimistically named Frequent Greenpoints. (That sounds a lot better than frequenting Greenpoint—which no summer associate need ever do.) They receive unlimited-ride MetroCards, and those who take the subway or walk to events (and remember to get their cards punched) can turn them in at the end of the summer, at which point Skadden will tally the total, coffee-shop-style, and donate $5 per punch to an organization that plants trees around the city.

Lunch

“Crab cakes are only fun when you eat them once every few weeks,” says one associate. It may be time to dial it up a notch: What about Le Cirque? Jean Georges? The Four Seasons?

Come July, summer associates are pretty much the only diners cracking open the menus anyway. “The people next to us are from Davis Polk, the people across the room are from Skadden,” said one former associate, describing the midtown “power lunch” scene. “Many times you’re sitting next to people, they would be having the exact same conversation, and you’re thinking, ‘Are you a summer associate? I think I interviewed you.’”

It’s especially obvious at the legendary Il Mulino in Greenwich Village, where meals are rumored to cost three times a summer’s lunch allowance. “I was scared to go there,” said one current associate.

Sushi Yasuda, on East 43rd Street near Davis Polk and Simpson Thacher, is popular with summers and partners for two reasons: “Really quick and really, really expensive,” noted the former associate. Omakase for two!

Davis Polk and Kaye Scholer summer associates, with lunch budgets of $75 a head, seem to be in the best position to indulge fully. Still, going over budget usually results in little more than a gentle warning to be more careful next time.

Hours

Twelve-hour days are not unheard of, and neither are lost weekends. “For a client, a summer can be a bargain,” noted a mid-level associate. At this associate’s spiffy firm, summers are billed out at $260 an hour, compared with $360 for first-year associates.

At Cravath, summers learn why their colleagues semi-affectionately refer to the Worldwide Plaza headquarters as the Death Star. “Under the guise of wanting to give you a taste of what the real Cravath life was like … you worked closer to associate hours,” one survivor recalled.

At Skadden, summers are expected to “bill” eight hours a day, but billing can include professional training and two-and-a-half-hour lunches. When they are working on a client matter, they are aware that their superiors discount for inefficiency and general cluelessness.

“They definitely sift though whatever time we spend on projects to bill the client appropriately,” said one Skadden summer. “It’s definitely not 1:1.”

Love

“I’m trying to sleep with summer associates. I’ve made no progress.” So says a BigLaw associate who, understandably, did not want to be identified. (Watch out, ladies!) As might be clear from this sentiment, associates don’t get out of the office much, so when the new summers arrive, it’s like the buffet at Denny’s. “People facebook people, in the old sense of the word,” said one former Cravath summer, referring to the handy summer-associate directories (headshots included!) many firms distribute. “If you never leave the building, when are you going to meet someone else?”

Firms are also notorious gossip dens. “Most people are aware that anything they do or say is going to get around,” says a former summer at Simpson.

Paging Aquagirl!

http://www.nyobserver.com/2007/my-very-special-summer