Considering the way law firms have been shedding attorneys and staffers, it's hardly a surprise that being a summer clerk this year wasn't exactly the full five-star experience the summer class of 2009 may have dreamed about in law school.
Instead of being courted and catered to, this year's summer class came face to face with the rough realities of the continuing economic downturn.
"The economic times suck," one clerk at New York's Skadden, Arps, Meagher, Slate & Flom wrote bluntly in response to our most recent summer associates survey. "The firm can't change that. But the times have made for a difficult summer." A Bryan Cave intern put it this way: "It is a scary time to be a law student."
One indication of just how scary: The number of summer clerks who said they expected to receive full-time job offers was down sharply, according to our survey, while anecdotal evidence culled from respondents' answers to open-ended questions suggested that stress and anxiety levels were up.
Almost half of this year's summer class said they weren't sure whether they would get full-time offers from their firms, compared to just 17 percent last year and 12 percent in 2007. Many of the rising 3Ls expressed deep frustration -- and in some cases outright panic -- over being kept in the dark about firms' hiring plans. "For the love of God," pleaded one Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher clerk in a typical comment, "please be more transparent about the offer process and outlook."
That said, Gibson and other firms still managed to provide their clerks with substantive assignments, along with free (if generally less lavish) meals and an assortment of summer outings. But the ongoing uncertainty over job prospects definitely distracted from the usual unabashed summer fun.
With the recession already in effect by mid-2008, last year's summers were more nervous than those in prior years. Summer supervisors say that worries were even more pronounced this year. That may have had the effect of making the 2009 summers a bit more competitive and less collegial, at least with their peers. "My impression was that they were trying harder to make more of an impression," says Sarah Davies, hiring partner at Philadelphia's Cozen & O'Connor, this year's top-ranking firm.
This year's Cozen associates didn't just take more initiative in seeking out assignments. They also went out of their way to take more attorneys to lunch, including some senior partners. "They were definitely trying harder," says Cozen summer program director Scott Brucker. "They weren't taking anything for granted."
At third-ranking Fox Rothschild, in Philadelphia, professional recruitment director Sarah Apelquist recalls that one summer go-getter looking to specialize in intellectual property drove out to the firm's Princeton office so he could personally introduce himself to the IP department chair. "Across the board, they were much more proactive in getting our attorneys to know them," says Apelquist.
For the past several years, firms with relatively small summer classes have tended to earn top scores in our survey. That trend held again this year. Top-ranking Cozen had 18 summer clerks; Boston's Nutter McClennen & Fish, a perennial survey favorite and this year's second-place finisher, had ten; and Fox Rothschild had 11. (Nutter and Cozen swapped places this year, after Nutter took the top honors in 2008 and Cozen finished second.) Our 2009 survey was sent to 7,169 summer clerks at 151 law firms; 4,971 responded. (Reflecting the more robust 2008 market, last year's survey went to nearly 11,000 summers at 190 firms, yielding some 7,600 responses.)