This year's summer class faces a steep, sweaty, painful and daunting challenge if its members hope to nab an offer of employment from Big Law.
One misstep and a hapless Summer Camper will be summarily jettisoned from the "Possible hire if the economy miraculously improves" pile and dumped in the "Ignore this luckless soul and focus on the few who might have a chance" pile.
I just want to state for the record that had I been a summer associate during an economic crisis such as the current one, I would not be a Big Law Cog today.
Our erstwhile booming economy was just one of the many dumb-luck, acts-of-fate events that got me and many other Cogs like me into the Big Law machine. For most Cogs working at Big Law today, our experience as summer associates was nothing like what this year's Cog-wannabes are enduring.
THE GOOD OLE DAYS
Even as recently as last year, Summer Camp was a fantasy land of unrealistically light workloads, extravagant retreats, ridiculous salaries and near guaranteed future employment. A summer associate in 2003, for example, could sleep through a deposition, blame the nap on a hangover, drive his car into the columns in the parking deck, turn in one of his four "projects" three days late -- and still get an offer. This silly camp-like atmosphere generated a certain arrogance and joie de vivre in the Campers that gave many Big Law Cogs an ever-increasing distaste for summer associates.
It is, I confess, unfair of us to despise these eager, naive and spoiled younger siblings who are thinking and behaving the same way we did when we were Summers. And who were we kidding? We also were arrogant, clueless and overpaid summer associates. Which is probably why we hate Summers now -- some sort of projected anger at ourselves or whatever other psychobabble excuse there is for it.
But this summer, my mild distaste has been replaced with a strange combination of pity and fear. I pity Summers because they are all suddenly in a cutthroat competition for the precious few positions Big Law is likely to offer once the August heat abates. I fear them because the sheer competitive gunner-ness that I am seeing as they turn up their game makes my hair stand on end.
Believe me, kids, I see you rifling through the papers on each others' desks. I hear you badmouthing your Georgetown Law classmate to the Managing Partner's secretary. And I know exactly what you're doing when I see you skulking around the elevator banks on the 21st floor. But more on that last one later. What I want you to know now is this: I'm watching my back, because I'm not yet sure what lengths you'll go to in order to replace me!
OK, before my elder-statesCog paranoia gets too well developed, I will concede that Summer Camp was always a bit of a game. You had to show that you were not only an accomplished Law Review editor, but that you also could hang with the Firm's Intellectual Property nerds at Disco Bowling and then seamlessly hit one out of the park at the Firm softball game the next night with the Employment Section jocks. That social pressure was somewhat stressful, but nothing compared with the challenges facing this year's class of wannabes.
For the first time since I can remember, the percentage of summer associates likely to get a permanent offer has plummeted from 99 percent to, well, no one knows, but maybe 30 percent? With offers likely to be few, the social pressure to make a positive and memorable impression on the Firm's decision-makers is at an all-time high -- just when the duration of the summer program and number of social opportunities has dropped to an all-time low.
What is a Summer Camper to do? Wait by the elevator banks, apparently.
STALK THE DECISION MAKERS
I call this Summer Game "Stalk the Decision Makers." That's because this year's summer crew is so keenly focused on the key partners they know will make or break their dreams of Cogging it up in 2010.
The overachieving partner who decided to become "Hiring Partner" or "Head of the Recruiting Subcommittee" is hating life right now. Every summer associate is stalking her, or her secretary, to secure a personal lunch date. With Summer Camp lasting eight to 10 weeks at many firms, Hiring Partner could be in for at least two solo summer lunches per week. Ouch.
Those slackers who failed to schedule their solo nosh with Hiring Partner within the first three days of Camp have taken to holding desperate vigils outside her office, waiting for her to head to the elevator bank. Once she steps into the elevator alone, they seize their chance to be remembered, jump in behind her and launch into their rehearsed spiel:
"Hi! I do not think we have met! I am Summer Camper No. 36! You're Hiring Partner right? OF COURSE you are! I am so glad I bumped into you. I was just re-reading your bio on the Firm's Web site and can't believe you spoke at that Bankruptcy Seminar hosted by my Law School two years ago. Small world! I was there too, and remember your speech. It was what convinced me to apply to work here -- but not that I'm only interested in Bankruptcy. Nope -- not me. I am equally interested in every single solitary area in which Big Law has attorneys. Or even clerical work. Sign me up!"
But at least Hiring Partner knew what she was getting into when she took that gig and can consider such moments part of the package. Unfortunately, the stalking doesn't stop with her. Gunner 2Ls frantic to secure an offer -- and pay off their six-figure law school loans -- are ambushing name-brand partners, too.
But the rainmaking, top-dog, antitrust-law litigator with the firm's biggest book of business has no time or patience for being hunted by some Harvard pipsqueak (tailed by the rest of his Ivy-educated-Summer-Associate-brethren-and-sistern-at-arms) who suddenly realized that seeking a gig in the real estate section is the equivalent of trying to win the Mega Millions lottery.
Here's a tip for all you Gunner Summers: Rain Maker doesn't need to recruit your little clueless selves to research quarter-page segments of his 9th Circuit briefs. What's the point? He'd just have to transfer your attempts to some Senior Cog for a redo. And he doesn't want to talk to you about what made him decide to practice law, or why he's spent the last 17 years of his life worshipping the billable hour at this particular temple of Big Law. So beware, Gunner Summers, even if you get what you want -- an audience with Rain Maker -- those 14 minutes in his august presence could seal your fate. In this economy, one mildly annoying comment to one key decision maker and you have just removed yourself from consideration.
Heck, in this economy, one false move in front of almost anyone can get you off the potential hire list. Big Law is looking for any reason not to hire you -- other than the real reason, which is this: "Big Law is in big financial trouble."
So go ahead and try to one-up your competition by -- what a novel idea! -- turning in a better work product.
But please, please don't be disappointed when you still don't get an offer. Take some small comfort in knowing that most of us who are barely hanging on to our Big Law gigs would never have even gotten them in the first place if we were in the running in this economy.
Luck is cheap -- I wish you lots of it.
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