People waiting for interviews. (Photo: Shutterstock)

 

Summer associate recruiting was fairly robust in 2019, but questions are swirling over what impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on those second-year students hired last fall by firms and the soon-to-be law graduates who are slated to start work as associates this fall.

According to new data on summer associate hiring released by NALP on Wednesday, the latest law firm recruiting cycle was a strong one. Offer rates to 2019 summer associates hit a historic high of 98%, meaning nearly every summer associate last year received an offer to return to the firm after graduation.

However, the average size of summer associate classes fell slightly from 14 to 13. That small decline was driven by the largest firms pulling back on the number of summer associates they hired, the NALP data shows.

“What these data suggest is that in the more than 10 years following the Great Recession, law firms steadily rebuilt their summer programs and entry-level recruiting pipeline, but that regrowth has now definitively been capped, and in some cases firms have begun to implement a gentle taper, perhaps in anticipation of some economic uncertainty ahead,” reads NALP’s report, titled Perspectives on 2019 Law Student Recruiting.

But it remains to be seen how the coronavirus will impact upcoming summer associate programs and the upcoming law firm recruiting cycle. No law firms have made any official decisions to pare back their incoming summer associate classes or rescind offers to incoming associates, said NALP executive director Jim Leipold in an interview Wednesday. But there is no shortage of anxiety over what will happen with summer associate and entry-level legal employment amid the financial upheaval the virus and the bid to contain it has caused.

“Got an email today that the firm ‘hopes to be able to’ go forward with our [summer associate] positions,” wrote one student on Reddit, where law students are discussing the fallout of the coronavirus on their academic lives and employment prospects. “I can’t decide if I need to vomit, cry, or crawl back into bed.”

At the moment, most law firms are still trying to manage the transition to remote work for their existing employees, Leipold said. But they are beginning to think about how the summer associate experience may be different this year.

“I don’t think canceling summer programs is what’s going to happen,” he said. “But I think if firms are still stuck in remote work, they’ll be thinking, ‘OK, what does that look like for a summer associate who has never worked here? How do we train them? How do we give them virtual assignments? How do we have social bonding when we can’t come into work?’ I think those are the questions being asked right now for the incoming summer class.”

Gavin White, the global hiring partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said Wednesday that the firm still plans to bring its 2020 summer associate class on board, with possible adjustments to the summer schedule.

“We are sending an email to the student in our program that we are sill committed them,” he said. “They are part of the Skadden family and we look forward to welcoming them. We have to see what the future holds to see what the contours of that will be.”

If law schools push back their on-campus recruiting programs, which typically take place in late July and early August, then firms could delay the start of their summer associate programs and run them into August, White noted.

When the 2008 financial crisis hit, many firms canceled or significantly curtailed their summer associate programs, and rescinded or deferred offers to incoming associates. But the coronavirus is a crisis of a different nature—a significant disruption in commerce instead of a breakdown in the banking and credit system—Leipold said, and some economists are predicting a swift recovery once the pandemic is contained. That could limit the long-term impact on summer associate and new lawyer hiring, he said.

But in the short run, the uncertainty over the coronavirus is sure to overshadow the relatively good news from the fall summer associate recruiting cycle.

“Nobody has really made a decision,” Leipold said of how firms will handle the incoming summer associate class and upcoming recruiting season. “Firms are grappling with that right now. I think firms will make good faith efforts to honor their commitments under the present circumstances. There’s not enough information in the marketplace yet to know how all of this will play out. But it will certainly have an impact on everything.”