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For Summer Associates, Size Does MatterSummer associates of 2007 craved real work and lots of attention. They found it at small to midsize firms
Small is beautiful, according to the more than 7,300 respondents to our Summer Associates Survey. Though the summers liked big firms, their evaluations show they liked life at small to midsize firms better. Students craved juicy assignments, friendly offices and lots of attention, and the firms that best met these needs tended to be medium-size, with smaller summer programs. Whether big or small, firms that did well in the survey focused on training, mentoring and involving summers in exciting projects.
The American Lawyer2007-11-19 12:00:00 AM
Small is beautiful, at least in the eyes of 2007's summer associates. While respondents to our Summer Associates Survey liked big firms, they liked life at small to midsize firms even better. Students craved juicy assignments, friendly offices and lots of attention, and the firms that best satisfied these needs tended to be medium-size shops with relatively small summer programs.
Of the top 20 firms, only four had summer programs with more than 100 clerks, while nine hired 30 or fewer summer associates. Students most commonly cited firm reputation as a factor influencing their clerkship decision, but that doesn't mean that the behemoths of the legal world always have the upper hand in winning over law students.
"They go out of their way to make you feel like a part of the family from day one," wrote an enthused summer at first-ranked Nutter McClennen & Fish, which had only 11 clerks. His comments were echoed by a clerk at third-ranked Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, which hired 25 summers: "The firm truly incorporates the summer associates into the firm life and treats each summer associate as a first-year." One of the 17 summer associates at second-ranked Fox Rothschild called it "a big firm where you can live a small-firm lifestyle." Students at these top three firms gave their employers the highest scores in the country for "real" and "interesting" work, training and guidance, and partner interaction.
For firms, the recruiting game is getting tougher, say several hiring partners. Small firms, Wall Street investment banks, academia and nonprofits are competing with The Am Law 200 for top talent, these partners say. "Students are considering, right off the bat, career options outside the law firm environment," says Thomas Golden, chair of the professional personnel committee at eighth-ranked Willkie Farr & Gallagher. "In the past few years I've seen students who seem to be exploring smaller firms with greater frequency than they used to."
More than 10,000 law students flocked to work at the 195 firms in our survey this past summer, and more than 7,300 supplied evaluations of their firms. As in previous years, the overwhelming majority gave good reviews, awarding an average 4.513 on a scale of 1 to 5. Even the lowest-scoring firms, Andrews Kurth and Nossaman Guthner Knox & Elliott, managed a still-respectable 3.957. But some firms got extra kudos. Thirteen firms from last year's top 20 made the top 20 again, suggesting that they've found a repeatable formula for success.
Other firms made big jumps to land in the top ranks, including second-ranked Fox Rothschild (No. 110 last year); fifth-ranked Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo (No. 70 last year); and Willkie Farr (No. 113 last year).
The No. 1 firm, 155-lawyer Nutter McClennen, earned perfect fives in eight of the nine scoring categories. The program's small size goes a long way in explaining its success, says Alexander Glovsky, chair of the firm's hiring committee: "A firm like ours has the opportunity to really embed our summer class." In addition to taking part in weekly "nuts and bolts" legal seminars, clerks at Nutter spent their summers working with attorneys in and out of the office. "We aggressively encourage partners and associates to bring summer associates along to court, to closings, to events where they can see lawyers at all levels in action," says Glovsky.
The firm's efforts did not go unnoticed. "This is a place where you can become a good lawyer. People care about your professional development and about you," one intern wrote.
That kind of personal attention was exactly what most students seemed to be looking for. Firms that did well in the survey, whether large or small, focused on training and mentoring and pushed partners to involve summers in exciting projects. Thomas Burton III, co-chair of Mintz Levin's Boston hiring committee, credits the firm's improved ranking to its decision to keep the summer program small -- just 32 clerks -- and to a renewed emphasis on mentoring. "We really reached out to lawyers and shook them down and said, 'What are you doing today? What are you doing tomorrow? What can you take a summer associate to?'" says Burton. To make sure that students received plenty of feedback on their completed work, the firm gave interns Starbucks gift cards so they would take partners out to coffee once an assignment was finished.
This structured yet informal approach to mentoring paid off: Mintz Levin received the third-highest score in the training and guidance category. "Everyone has an open door, is willing to answer your questions, and wants to teach you how to produce good legal work," wrote one Mintz, Levin summer associate.
One of the few big programs at the top of the chart, Philadelphia's Morgan, Lewis & Bockius maintained its strong ranking -- fourth this year, seventh last year -- by making sure that its 120 clerks had plenty of real work. "I was amazed at how quickly I was given access to clients," wrote one summer associate. "On my second day (before we even completed training), a partner grabbed me to attend a client meeting. Subsequently, I worked along with that client for multiple assignments throughout my summer to the point where the client knew me personally." For many, another winning aspect of the Morgan summer was its plethora of pro bono opportunities. One-third of the class took part in a Public Interest Community Service (PICS) program, through which students split their time between the firm and a nonprofit, like The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Morgan Lewis wasn't alone in emphasizing pro bono projects. Asked about the summer's most memorable moments, many students mentioned representing Hurricane Katrina victims, political asylum applicants and prisoners. "I assisted an attorney in a pro bono matter by writing her brief for the appeal. The judge called us and the prosecutor into chambers and told us that he thought our argument in the brief was more compelling than the prosecutor's, which effectively forced a deal. So basically I won my first case this summer," boasted a clerk at second-ranked Fox Rothschild.
Others found exotic legal adventures abroad. "My most enjoyable experience was going to Cairo, Egypt, for a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act assignment for a week," wrote a Willkie summer associate. "A four-and-a-half-hour horseback trip across the desert was the most memorable part of it." A summer at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton recalled her six-week stint in Paris: "The firm got me an awesome apartment in the Marais, and we had great events throughout the summer, like the French Open." At Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, summer associates with the appropriate language skills rotated through Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai or Tokyo. Several hiring partners say they have noticed an increase in the number of recruits wanting to work overseas. "They're much less domestic and more international," says Orrick's West Coast hiring partner, James Kramer, of today's law students. "A lot of the folks talking with us see the benefits of being outside the U.S."
Wherever they spent their summers, law firm clerks were, as always, lavishly entertained. Clerks were treated to skyboxes at baseball games, cooking classes, musicals, symphony concerts, whitewater rafting trips and scavenger hunts. A summer associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom enjoyed "grazing on Kobe beef sliders and contemplating [Picasso's] Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" at a private showing and dinner at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Across town, Jones Day summers downed cocktails at the United Nations. On the West Coast, a Cooley Godward Kronish summer remembered "sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge one weekend and flying under it in a helicopter the very next." An Orrick clerk reported "much debauchery at the weekend retreat to Half Moon Bay." She added: "I'll spare you most of the hairy details, but I do want to brag that litigation dominated over corporate at just about every flip cup game."
The pay was good, too. In step with first-year associate salaries that have reached $160,000 in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago, average weekly gross pay for clerks at surveyed firms jumped 8.6 percent, to $2,856. Some interns found it funny that they were being paid so much. "It used to be taboo to talk about salary," says Scott Brandman, chair of the North American hiring committee at Baker & McKenzie. "But now they're kind of joking, 'Wow, this is a lot of money.'"
For a few students, it wasn't enough, like the summer associate at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy who whined about "how much I had to pay in taxes." Others suggested they would gladly trade some of the riches for less time at the office. "Give people an option of opting out of the salary increase in return for less billable hours," advised a clerk at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. "Stop raising salaries, it is just going to hit us in hours in the end," grumbled a summer associate at Hogan & Hartson.
Indeed, interns got a taste of how arduous law firm life can be. On average, they worked 44 hours per week. An Orrick summer grimly remembered "watching the sun go down and come back up and not even realizing the time had passed as I worked all night to finish a memo." At LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, a clerk recalled "sending an e-mail to an associate past 1 a.m. and getting a reply in less than two minutes. Scary." For most respondents, long hours weren't appealing. When asked to identify factors influencing whether they would accept a full-time job offer, students cited "work/life balance" 54 percent of the time. No other factor was chosen more often. The desire to live in a particular city was the second most common factor, selected by 48 percent of respondents.
In general, though, the firms that ranked lower in the survey results lagged not because they forced too much work (or too much money) on their summer charges, but because the clerks felt just little bit neglected. All but one of the bottom 10 firms scored below 4.0 in training and guidance.
At Nossaman Guthner, which tied with Andrews Kurth for last place, summer associates gave the California firm relatively low marks on questions concerning "real" work, training and guidance, and how clearly the firm communicated its expectations. "Many of the assignments had vague goals, and I found myself trying to guess at what the partner expected," complained one Nossaman Guthner summer. "Give the summer associates more real work! I want to write motions, not just research motions," groused another.
"We feel good about our summer associate program," Ron Grace, recruitment committee chair, wrote in an e-mail. "However, in the context of this survey, we'll have to take a closer look at our current program and work as we do each year to find ways to improve it."
At Houston's Andrews Kurth, only a dozen of 48 summer associates responded to the survey, but those 12 found the work and training underwhelming. In written comments, three clerks complained about the firm's lack of diversity -- a common criticism at all firms, including those rated very highly. "We are surprised by the ranking in light of our high acceptance rate to date, and wish that more of our summer clerks had responded," hiring partner Alexis Gómez said in an e-mail.
But even at the lower-ranked firms, associates came away impressed with their taste of big-firm life. From Manhattan's megafirms to small shops in Indiana, lawyers once again convinced a new group of law students that they can be a pleasure to work with. Hundreds of summers expressed surprise at how amiable, laid-back and all-around fun their future colleagues seemed. "I love the people here," gushed a summer at Philadelphia's Blank Rome, ranked sixth. "Everyone is incredibly friendly, always willing to help, and a lot of fun to be around. I haven't laughed this much in a long time. It's been like summer camp for law students." Big law firms may be facing more competition for law students in the recruitment wars, but they're still holding their own.
The Firm Reports