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For Summers, It's More Boot Camp, Less BeaujolaisThese days, law firms' summer associate programs are less like days of cruises and caviar and more like boot camp. To satisfy clients who enjoy greater bargaining power after the recession, firms are staffing matters with associates in top form who are focused on "understanding what it's like to be a good lawyer so they can be one sooner," says one firm recruiter.
2013-06-12 04:18:29 PM
Gone are the days of cruises and caviar. These days, law firms' summer associate programs are more like boot camp for lawyers-in-waiting.
At least that's what's in store for law students arriving at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, where the summer kicks off with an exercise that chief talent officer Robert Williams calls "basic training." For two weeks, the firm's summer associates face off in teams of two to try a case from start to finish, from gathering evidence to preparing closing statements. The activity culminates with a trial before a jury of six Sheppard Mullin employees and a real-life judge.
It's a far cry from the classic Big Law summer of memos followed by cocktail hour, Williams notes.
"We're way beyond that," he said. Even in the dog days of summer, neither firms nor the students that began arriving at the end of May have time for those rituals. With clients enjoying greater bargaining power after the recession, firms need to staff matters with associates armed with real skills. Law students can't ignore the market dynamics either. An informal Recorder survey of 11 firms conducted last fall found that this summer's San Francisco Bay Area classes are 40 percent smaller than they were in 2007. The students who land the coveted spots report to the office in top form, said Stephen Venuto, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe's firmwide head of on-campus attorney recruiting.
"Their focus in previous years was on having a great time and making sure the firm was a good place to work," said Venuto, a Silicon Valley-based corporate partner. "Now they're focused on understanding what it's like to be a good lawyer so they can be one sooner."
Firms have responded to that call by stepping up the training they deliver. For the past few years, Fenwick & West has called upon its professional development staff to deliver a wider range of programming to summer associates. In addition to delving into the practice of law with clinics on depositions and negotiations, Fenwick also tries to impart the softer skills that associates need to navigate the firm, said Julieta Stubrin, Fenwick's director of attorney recruiting and diversity. One writing course centers on internal communications.
"They learn how to write a brief email that will get the partner's attention right away," Stubrin said.
Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati has also boosted its training regimen, adding sessions that expose students to its hottest practice areas. Last year's session on startups and early-stage finance was such a hit that Wilson Sonsini is doing it again and also rolling out a patent workshop this year, said Stacy Trzesniewski, the firm's law school recruiting manager.
Orrick introduces law students to its full battery of corporate clients. Later this summer, a few summer associates will travel to Microsoft Corp.'s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to meet the company's legal team. The students are also commonly deployed to the headquarters of startups, where they work in the trenches to sift through documents, Venuto said.
Morrison & Foerster has brought all its summer associates together before. But this year, the gathering was styled not as a party but a conference, managing partner Craig Martin noted. The two-day San Francisco program held earlier this month included an interactive M&A exercise, a roundtable in which partners reflected on their first trials, and a panel with general counsel from the likes of Cypress Semiconductor Corp. and Immersion Corp.
"We want to maximize the value that our associates can provide to our clients on day 1," Martin said.
Of course, the summer associates are not completely deprived of wining and dining. MoFo's conference also featured a stop at the Waterbar, where firm client Illuminate the Arts delivered a sunset speech on the Bay Bridge light installment. Summer associates at Orrick and Fenwick have laser tag and a casino night to look forward to, respectively. A highlight of Wilson's summer program is a Segway tour of San Francisco.
Students see the smaller class sizes when they survey the summer plans of their peers. Those who land spots are grateful for them, said Vicki Huebner, assistant dean for law career services at Santa Clara University School of Law. Asked to relay the feedback she has received from students so far, she summarized: "I'm happy to be here. They're treating me nicely so far."