It’s nearly summer, when another generation of high-achieving law students will descend on firms across the country for a curated taste of life and work in Big Law.
But there’s a difference this year. The first summer associate season since the #MeToo movement means a whole new set of expectations for law firms.
Some, including Goodwin Procter and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, are taking the opportunity to modify their programs, partly by moving away from alcohol-fueled events to activities focused on the wellness and wellbeing of their summer associates.
“Since it is the first class since the #MeToo movement, I would hope and expect that most law firms do have a heightened level of awareness around potential liability that could come out of their summer associate programs,” said Patrick Krill, a legal industry behavioral health consultant.
Summer associate programs typically involve lots of wining and dining, with firms competing to treat their summers to social events ranging from mixers with partners to trips to the Belmont Stakes and the ESPY Awards. But all that young talent and too much alcohol can be a dangerous mix for both the summer associates and the law firms.
“In light of #MeToo movement, an open bar at a summer associate event is potentially a tinderbox of liability,” Krill said.
In the legal industry, Krill said, most harassment claims in the workplace can be traced back to an event where alcohol was present.
“If you have a summer associate class and have a lot of open bar events, you’re essentially opening the doors to all sorts of potential bad behavior,” he said.
To combat this, Goodwin Procter national hiring partner Emily Rapalino said the firm has ensured that its summer associate programming this summer is focused on activities and wellness-based events that are not centered solely around alcohol.
“We’re explicit in acknowledging the correlation between alcohol and bad behavior and we really want to move away from that,” Boston-based Rapalino said.
Goodwin’s calendar of events for its summer associates includes cooking classes, spinning classes, and cultural events like museum tours and theater outings.
In addition to limiting the amount of alcohol at functions, the firm had all of its managerial employees and its lawyers, including its summer associates, participate in mandatory anti-harassment training. The training includes role-playing in which lawyers and staff are expected to make judgment calls about potentially inappropriate conduct.
The changes to Goodwin’s summer associate programming were made to broadcast internally and externally that the firm is taking its role seriously post-#MeToo, Rapalino said.
“Their summer associate tenure here is their sort of inauguration into the firm,” Rapalino said. “I think addressing #MeToo and implementing these programs and doing it in this explicit way is our way of making sure that we educate our next generation of attorneys about what’s important to us, what our values are and what our culture is.”
Like Goodwin, Orrick also altered its summer program this year, both to limit the amount of alcohol and to educate summer associates on workplace conduct issues.
“Teamwork in the #MeToo Era” is a firmwide training being offered by the San Francisco-based firm that educates its employees on various firm policies, but also looks to promote discussions about proper workplace conduct in the #MeToo era.
“We also felt like it was important to roll out some training to make sure people really understood the policies in light of #MeToo,” said Siobhan Handley, chief talent officer at Orrick. “[And] we thought it was really important that we do this when the summer associates were a part of the firm.”
Handley, a former Orrick summer associate herself, also noted that the firm has consciously moved away from alcohol-centered events in its summer associate program, opting more often for activities focused on developing the “whole person.”
“We want to get away from this idea that every social event for the summer associates has to have a bunch of alcohol,” she said.
Krill challenged the legal profession to develop summer associate programs that are exciting and engaging but that also encourage healthy and safe work environments.
“I understand how firms can be stuck in a cycle,” he said. But now “is really is the time to do it.”