As if law school weren’t competitive enough, Am Law 200 firms are making rising second- and third-year law students work even harder to secure a spot among the dwindling number of summer associate positions offered in Big Law. Year over year, summer hires decreased an average of 2.02 percent at the 92 Am Law 200 firms participating in our Summer Associates Survey.
Still, the rewards got slightly better. The average salary for an Am Law 200 summer associate at surveyed firms is $3,285 per week, up 11.36 percent from last year, according to early data from the survey.
Among the firms responding to the survey, New York City remained the location with the most reported summer hires at 2,175, followed by Chicago with 311, Los Angeles with 299, and Boston with 222.
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Eric Seeger, consultant at Altman Weil, says that firms are hiring fewer young lawyers due to decreased demand, as clients send less legal work to outside counsel. “A majority of firms are telling us that their partners are not busy enough,” he said. “In firms where partners are having a hard time keeping themselves busy, they have less work to throw to associates.”
Although most firms had only modest changes in their summer associate numbers, a few firms saw big swings year over year. Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft cut its program the most on a percentage basis: 48.9 percent fewer summer associates, from 47 hires in 2016 to 24 this summer. Cadwalader managing partner Patrick Quinn said that the decreased hiring was intentional. “We made a conscious decision to keep our numbers down to ensure that we keep quality up and that our summers have a great experience,” Quinn said in an email. “At our firm’s current size, we are able to provide this size of summer class with a great experience with lots of very substantive and challenging work and a lot of personal attention.”
Paul Hastings had the largest absolute drop in summer associates, from 132 in 2016 to 84 in 2017. Communications director Arielle Lapiano says that the firm’s summer class of 2016 was unusually large. “Our program over the past couple of years [had] been a bit smaller,” she says. “Last summer we felt like we needed to grow, and we ended up oversubscribing. We ended up extending a larger number of offers and having a larger number of acceptances. That year was the outlier.”
Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton had the biggest percentage increases in summer hires. Ogletree hired 83.3 percent more summer associates in 2017, although in actual numbers the gain was more modest: from 12 associates in 2016 to 22 in 2017. Cleary Gottlieb made the biggest splash in absolute numbers with 151 summer associates, 54 more summer hires than the 97 the firm made in 2016. Both Ogletree and Cleary Gottlieb declined to comment.
Four firms tied for the highest summer associate pay, $3,750 per week: Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; Dechert; Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel; and Cooley. Tennessee-based Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz reported the lowest salary in the survey: $1,500 per week.
The survey also asked firms how many first-year associates they expect to welcome in the fall. In what is perhaps a bad omen for this year’s summer associates, the average class size for incoming associates dropped to 38.6 new lawyers from 40.4.
Of firms surveyed in Altman Weil’s Law Firms in Transition Survey, 46 percent expect to have the same number of associates or fewer over the next five years than they have right now. “That’s not a rosy outlook for associates,” Seeger says. Still, he says he believes that there will still be plenty of work opportunities for future law school graduates.
“Lawyers that can employ technology that increases speed and decreases cost will be very much in demand, whether they are working in a big law firm or some other setting,” he says.
Correction, 7/5/17, 5:00 p.m. EDT: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Paul Hastings did not provide any comment for this article. The comments that the firm provided on its hiring data have been incorporated into the sixth paragraph of the story. We regret the previous omission.