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Reading the 2002 Summer Associates Survey is a lot like stepping into the shoes of Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”: Everything is backwards. According to the survey, summers worked harder than ever this year and whined less. Conspicuously absent was that what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude — a battle cry for more money, more partying, more perks. This year, many of the 4,192 survey participants from 192 firms mentioned words like “panic,” “frightened,” and “freakish competitive nature of summer associates” when describing their experiences. Summers seemed deflated as they confronted the harsh realities of law firm life — the competition, the pressure to bill — that they hadn’t expected to encounter so soon. And they seemed troubled by the mixed messages firms were sending about job prospects when, among other things, many sharply cut class size (to a total of 7,530 summer associates, down from 9,387 in 2001.) “Give us more feedback,” begged a respondent in the New York office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. “We are frightened, neurotic law students; tell us where we stand!” Most summers of 2002, however, weren’t so much neurotic as they were mature young adults. Indeed, the profession may look back on this as the year summers grew up. Witness the fact that they were grateful — the word pops up repeatedly on surveys — for their jobs. And consider that a major worry was how they would balance their family and work lives as future associates. Choosing a firm geographically close to friends and family was another top priority. Most of all, summers wanted offers — badly. Job jitters engendered a level of competition not seen for a long time. That’s not so surprising, given the current state of the economy. Still, though summers had to sing for their supper (read: bill long hours), they managed to enjoy the experience. Most firms soldiered on, welcoming classes of law students with the usual smorgasbord of rituals: sailing, golfing, dining, scavenger hunts. Yet the programs occurred in a kind of reality warp. As one summer at Houston’s Andrews & Kurth, wrote: “I can’t believe that any law firm feels it has to wine and dine a law student to get him/her to accept a six-figure salary upon graduation.” MAKE IT INTERESTING In New York and everywhere else, 2002 summers worked long hours at both the top- and bottom-ranked firms. The top tier scored high, however, for “interesting” work, while the bottom five received some of the lowest numbers on that issue. Those bottom five also fared poorly on training and guidance. In fact, summers at the top-ranked firms emphasized how much they valued the work experience, praising the “amount and quality of work assignments and the interaction with clients with the supervision of partners” plus the “invaluable learning experience” (Philadelphia’s Blank Rome Comisky & McCauley). They mentioned “the amount of training available” (Boston’s Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault), and “the importance of the work given to me” (Washington, D.C.’s Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner). Summers also made clear that they liked feeling welcomed and integrated into the firm. A summer at number-two-ranked Blank Rome expressed surprise at “how excited every partner and associate was/is to meet the summer class and have them participate in the firm.” A respondent at D.C.’s McKenna Long & Aldridge (ranked number eight) appreciated “the accessibility of the partners and their willingness to explain things to me.” And another McKenna summer exulted: “They greeted me with open arms.” MOTTO FOR SUCCESS: ‘BE PREPARED’ Blank Rome had its own recipe for success, based on deeply ingrained summer program traditions. The firm, for example, assigns a “preceptor,” or mentor, to each summer. “Many partners here remember who their preceptor was,” says Donna Branca, director of attorney relations. The firm also maintains an assignments log. “In the old days, it was in a loose-leaf book; now it’s computerized on our intranet,” says Fred Blume, cochairman and chief operating officer and a former summer himself at Blank Rome. Students can surf through background on cases and assignment descriptions, volunteering for those that interest them. The firm, further, has eliminated competition between summers by “sitting them down on the very first day and telling them ‘these jobs are theirs to lose,’ ” Blume says. At Minneapolis’s Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi (number four), success lay in the firm’s priority of “having good work for the summers,” says hiring partner Robert Gilbertson. Robins Kaplan also plans assignments before summers arrive and reassures them about their offers. “We want all of you to succeed here,” Gilbertson says they’re told. By not overhiring in the past few years, the firm has eliminated competitiveness; this year it made offers to 14 of its 15 summers. At the bottom of the list, summers described themselves as dissatisfied, anxious about offers, or disappointed. True, many had positive comments about the atmosphere and people. And this was certainly the case at last-placed Buchanan Ingersoll in Pittsburgh, but these were not the overriding sentiments. “The firm needs to place a greater emphasis on hiring associates with better interpersonal skills,” wrote one summer. Another complained of the “unfriendliness of a lot of shareholders,” while a third “expected a more relaxed atmosphere” — and was disappointed. Lori Lecker, public relations manager for Buchanan Ingersoll, says she believes its low score for interesting work resulted from “several huge projects for major corporate clients that had to be done,” which summers may have found “tedious.” But in this unsettled economy, dissatisfaction with Buchanan’s program has not yet driven anyone away. Lecker says that acceptance of offers so far (with some responses still to come) has been “fantastic,” — 100 percent to date. GYRATIONS AND ABERRATIONS First you’re up, then you’re down. Andrews & Kurth was one of the firms this year that suffered a fall from grace, dropping from a ranking of 33 in 2001, to 141 in 2002. This was “an aberration,” insists partner Jeffrey Spiers, attributing the low score to logistical distractions created by the firm’s merger with Houston’s Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton. “It was an unusual environment,” having the firm “split among two buildings and on unconnected floors,” he says. He also points to a high acceptance rate on 2002 summer offers. Ditto for the third-lowest-ranked firm, New York’s Coudert Brothers. Hiring committee chairman Edward Tillinghast III says the firm has had a 100 percent acceptance rate on offers. Accordingly, he expresses shock at the low survey score. “Our feedback from summers was very positive,” he says. “I thought we would have been in the top quarter.” He speculates that the firm’s low score (3.6 out of 5) on training and guidance — which helped plant it at the rankings’ deep end — stemmed from insufficient partner feedback on assignments. “It was a busy summer for the partners, and many were traveling on transactions,” he says. The theme of inadequate training and guidance also reared its head at sixth-from-last Jenner & Block. The Chicago firm received its lowest ranking-question score (3.7 out of 5) on that topic. Frustration was expressed by one summer who would have liked to “know the criteria [for evaluation] before doing our first assignments.” The firm did not respond to requests for comment. Redemption is possible, of course. Witness the meteoric rise of Chicago’s McDermott, Will & Emery to fourteenth place, up from 105th in 2001. “This year we had an intentionally smaller program and really tried to make a strong connection with each of our summer associates,” says Lydia Kelley, partner and recruiting committee chair. Good assignments, mentors, and low-key events such as ball games and movies all played a part. Another happy story: Atlanta’s Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy leaped to a number eight ranking from seventy-ninth place last year. “We didn’t make wholesale changes,” says Todd Jones, a partner and summer committee chair. While keeping to its past program, the firm did schedule an earlier summers’ retreat, allowing participants to get acquainted with each other and the attorneys, says recruitment coordinator Jennifer Wallace. Summers at Powell Goldstein also received ample partner attention. And a program of “corporate shadowing” allowed interested summers to observe an associate for three days during a transaction. HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL Despite their jitters about the rocky economy and their surprise at the demands for real work, this crop of summers seemed to have survived — and perhaps even thrived — on the adrenaline rush of real-life competition. They found it sobering, to be sure, but most summers nonetheless emerged from their reality tour expressing surprising optimism on one topic: Nearly all of those surveyed said they expected to receive offers. Maybe it’s Alice in Wonderland after all. Carla T. Main edits the opinion page of The National Law Journal.

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