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As the summer of 2001 approaches, many law students are wrapping up finals and preparing for that all-important summer associate position, the position that could lead to permanent employment if all goes according to plan. Legal research and writing courses are providing refresher workshops to “tweak” the writing skills for depositions and memorandums that will impress the partners. The career services office is answering any lingering questions or calming the concerns students may have before they start their summer associate positions with the high hopes of becoming permanent hires. Students are packing boxes, subletting apartments and condos, and heading for destinations across Texas and the nation. It sounds like a familiar, cut-and-dried routine — or is it? What happens if a firm calls and tells a student that the summer clerkship has been canceled? As students wade through finals and bar exams, firms are being hit by an entirely different set of waves. With the economy’s upswings and downturns, many firms are caught off guard, faced with the awful task of cutting back, merging or closing their doors. To make ends meet, a firm may be forced to cancel summer clerkships and eliminate associate positions. If this happens, oftentimes there is no hope of making even a good severance or pre-severance offer to the summer associate or permanent hire. Some firms find out their circumstances in enough time to send out letters describing their situations so that students can seek other positions. Some don’t. An unstable economy has many students, career service administrators and law school faculty wondering what the immediate future holds and asking important questions: What circumstance will this unpredictable pendulum swing create for summer associates and new permanent hires? And will there be summer positions available after the dust clears? Will those permanent positions still exist? What does this mean for an incoming summer associate? The new associate attorney? Can he/she count on a position for the summer? A permanent position? Are there key questions to ask to safeguard the future? Are these questions appropriate to ask law firms? Let me offer two real situations. Last summer, two students were offered summer associate positions. Both received their offers rather early in the spring semester. Thus, the search for another position ceased; after all, they had hoped for an early offer to allow them to concentrate fully on studying. Struck with such good fortune, they quickly secured their positions by accepting the offers in a timely manner. Toward the end of the semester, both received correspondence that the firms they had agreed to work for were either closing or merging; the prospect of employment was bleak. One student was offered a severance amount far less than promised by the rescinding firm. The other student was offered nothing. Both students had no way of securing meaningful legal employment on such short notice. Another student experienced a similar situation — a firm closed and offered no severance — but the firm at least attempted to find the student placement elsewhere, unfortunately without success. STEPS TO TAKE So, with these scenarios, what is a student’s best defense against a similar situation? A great offense, as the clich� goes. The following are a few steps to take to safeguard your career in these possible predicaments. � Ask questions. A student should research the firm’s economic standings and ask questions, such as: “Is there a merger in the future, and how would that affect the summer associate program or a permanent position?” This is a safe question — after the position has been offered and accepted. Once a summer associate or permanent position decision has been offered and accepted, many questions come off the popular taboo list. A student should feel comfortable and confident to ask questions about the likelihood of a cutback or abandonment of the program. The firm should be able to tell the student what kind of strategy it has in place to compensate a summer associate or a student accepting a permanent position, if, for whatever reason, the firm is not able to make good on its offer. If the administration has no answer or has not even delved into the option, that should raise a red flag. You want to feel as though your place of employment has a plan A, B or C, even if it never has to use such measures. The question of a firm’s safety net plan and financial goals is an intelligent one to ask in the interview, too. As a student goes into research mode, all aspects of a firm need careful inspection to make an informed decision. Although it typically has been bad advice to have a “backup” firm if the first offer falls through, in light of economic instability, the wave of the future may be to have such a “Plan B.” � Do thorough research. With this research comes an understanding of the effects of a swinging economy. Obviously, areas of practice such as bankruptcy law would experience a boom in rough economic times. Students should be aware of all the practice areas of the firm. Size matters. The larger firms with many groups will be better able to stay afloat in the troubled waters stirred by an unstable economy than smaller, more specialized firms. This makes for a broader search and mind-set. A larger firm would not be forced to disband its summer associate program, but the program likely would be a more centralized one that actually is experiencing an unusually heavier work volume, whereas the smaller group may have to abandon the summer program. The larger firm also may be forced to have a smaller summer associate program with fewer students. Either way, research will be key as fall campus interviews are in the planning stages. Most firms have economic reports on their Web sites. The National Association of Law Placement (NALP) form is an invaluable guide and is found in career services offices around the country. The NALP form shows hiring trends for the particular firms of interest. Advice to students: Talk to all your contacts and get a feel for the firm and its preparedness for the tumultuous economy. � Know the economy swing. Students should keep an ear tuned in to the economic news. Knowledge about the economy will allow students to prepare for possible firm instability. This preparation should allow a student to build some flexibility into her planning. A student set on practicing entertainment law may need to be flexible about the type of firm work he does in the summer. A student set on practicing bankruptcy law might have to broaden her ideas about acceptable clerkships. For example, general contract law experience can be modified for a future entertainment or bankruptcy law practice. A grad searching for a specific area of law to practice might also need to be flexible. Career services counselors need to act quickly to develop this “flexible” mind-set. Students need to know and understand there are many roads to choose from when beginning their careers. The best strategy for riding the economic wave is to be prepared and knowledgeable. Students must know and search for as much information as possible about law career options and the state of the economy to make informed and safe decisions for their careers. If met with the unfortunate task of starting over due to firm instability, a prepared student already will have a contingency plan for the future. Tanya Darnell is the coordinator/counselor of the Career Services Office at the University of Houston Law Center.

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