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business people jumping celebrating success vector cartoon illustration (Credit: Kraphix/Shutterstock.com)

Amid shrinking law school classes, law firms are looking for ways to capture the profession’s young talent. And this year, while firms provided their summer associate classes with the usual cavalcade of dazzling social events—like Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton’s outing to the Belmont Stakes or Paul Hastings’ trip to the ESPY Awards—it was actually Big Law’s efforts to give millennial would-be lawyers attention, work and mentorship that made the biggest impact, according to roughly 3,900 second- and third-year law school students who responded to The American Lawyer’s annual Summer Associates Survey.

Many of these soon-to-be lawyers, who spent 10 weeks in the 92 firms included in our survey, pointed to the substantive work and training they received as the most memorable part of their summer in Big Law.

“I got substantial assignments from partners and senior associates, and my work was passed directly to clients, incorporated into briefs, or trusted to provide the answer they were looking for,” said a summer associate at Foley Hoag in a comment in the survey. “Attorneys trust the summers to work diligently to complete tasks and provide them what they have requested.”

This year Boston-based Foley Hoag and Philadelphia-based Duane Morris tied for the top spot in the rankings, dethroning Choate Hall & Stewart, which dropped to seventh in the rankings after holding the top spot on the Summer Associates Survey for the last two years.

Both Foley Hoag and Duane Morris received perfect scores in the nine categories used for ranking, including questions about how interesting and “real” the work was, the level of training and guidance, how accurately the firm portrayed itself, how often the students interacted with partners and associates, and if the firm is an overall good place to work.

One Duane Morris summer was surprised at how accessible the firm’s partners were. “I was working with them directly on projects and I could call or go to their office whenever I had questions,” the associate said.

Newly formed Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer ranked third on the list, followed by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Crowell & Moring. Goodwin Procter, Choate Hall, White & Case, O’Melveny & Myers and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft rounded out the top 10 performers on our list.

In addition to cracking the top 10, Goodwin Procter also had the largest move on the list, jumping from 72nd in 2016 to sixth this year. Summer associates at the firm gave it 5 out of 5 in the overall place to work category, making Goodwin one out of 10 firms to earn that distinction on this year’s survey. Goodwin’s national hiring partner, Kenneth Gordon, says that while the firm didn’t substantially change its summer program this year, it has worked on several recruitment initiatives as well as diversity and inclusion efforts over the years that could account for its move up the list.

“It wasn’t that we felt like we needed a radical change necessarily from last summer as much as we thought we could augment some of the things we were doing well,” Gordon says.

Respondents gave their law firms an average overall ranking of 4.743 out of 5, with New York’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, the lowest-scoring firm, earning a still-respectable 4.346. Summer associates surveyed at Paul Weiss said that they craved more interactions with the firm’s partners as well as training and guidance. (Paul Weiss declined to comment.)

Compared to the 2016 summer associate class, this year’s class seems to be somewhat more optimistic and confident about their future in Big Law. More than 86 percent of 2017 summer associates, who received an average of $3,413 a week for this summer, expected to receive a job offer from their firm, compared to 84.9 percent in 2016. On a scale of 1 to 5 about their level of worry about job offers, with 5 meaning not worried at all, they rated their prospects at 4.40, compared to 4.17 last year.

As was the case last year, Big Law’s lack of diversity was one of the major complaints from respondents. Nearly 9 percent of summer associates ranked diversity in partnership as one of the factors they would consider in evaluating an offer from a firm, a slight increase from the 7.2 percent of associates who said this in 2016. In their responses, many summer associates noted the lack of women and racially diverse lawyers among the firm’s leadership, and challenged firms to make good on their promises to promote diversity and inclusion among its ranks.

“I see the firm making strides to improve the diversity of its associates, but the number of people who look like me in partnership levels of the firm is egregiously low, which can feel a little concerning,” one minority summer associate at Latham & Watkins said.”Latham & Watkins, like virtually all of our peers in the legal industry, recognizes the challenges that have created barriers to diversity,” BJ Trach, global chair of Latham’s diversity leadership committee said in an emailed statement. “As such, making the firm as diverse as the world in which we live is one of the most important strategic, multiyear priorities at Latham, one that impacts our decision-making at nearly every level.”

Summer associates also wanted firms to provide more opportunities for feedback on their work performance rather than just mid-summer and end-of-summer reviews.

“I’d really like more communication and feedback at an informal level rather than the institutional checks just put in place for summers,” a Weil, Gotshal & Manges summer suggested. One Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr associate suggested the firm consider doing biweekly check-ins with summer associates rather than a twice summerly review process. A Cooley associate said that firms should provide more specific, even harsh if necessary, feedback at the mid-summer review so associates know what they need to improve on over the summer. (At press time, Wilmer and Cooley did not respond to a request for comment.)