For this year’s summer law clerks, 2010 is likely to go down as the year of the even leaner, meaner summer program. Like their predecessors last year, this year’s summer class got a stark reminder of the heavy toll the recession has taken on the legal business, as many top law firms continued to cut back the length of their summer programs, from 12 weeks to ten or, in some cases, ten weeks to eight–if they had summer programs at all.
And in 2010, the size of summer classes was also down significantly from last year, as many firms scaled back their recruiting efforts, knowing they’d have far fewer full-time associate jobs to fill.
On the bright side, firms were generally better able than they were last year to assure the summer clerks they did hire that they would get full-time job offers, provided they did good work. In the end, almost three-quarters of those who answered The American Lawyer‘s 2010 Summer Associates Survey said they had either already gotten or expected to get an offer from their firms.
That’s an improvement over 2009, when only about half of the associates surveyed were expected to receive full-time offers. Yet this year’s numbers are still down sharply from 2006, when 87 percent of those surveyed said they expected a job offer–and when nearly all but the most lackadaisical summer associates were almost guaranteed to get offers.
Our 2010 survey went out to 3,879 summer clerks at 137 law firms, and 3,000 responded. Summer associates have traditionally been fairly easy graders, and this year was no exception. The average overall 2010 score was 4.58 (based on a scale of 1 to 5). Even the lowest-ranking firm–Minneapolis’s Faegre & Benson–earned a respectable 4.20. In a prepared statement, Heather Perkins, who chairs Faegre’s legal personnel committee, said the firm believes its summer program “provides meaningful work opportunities, excellent exposure to pro bono service, and substantial training programs that help our summer associates succeed once they join the firm.” (Indeed, Faegre’s score compares favorably to the 4.10 score earned by the last-place firm in 2006.)
Regardless of where they spent the summer, this year’s clerks tended to be serious and highly focused–and determined to prove their worth. Well aware of the economic forces buffeting the legal industry, the summer associates of 2010 didn’t take anything for granted. “They worked really, really hard,” says Tamara Gilles, senior recruiting coordinator at Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton, which soared from number 49 in last year’s rankings to the top spot this year. “They were making sure they did everything they could to put themselves in the best position [for an offer] at the end of the summer.”
“We said, ‘We know there’s a lot of anxiety in the marketplace, but what each of you can control is the ability to do good work.’ “
Pepper hosted 14 summer clerks this year, down from 17 last year. Partner Michael Subak, who chairs Pepper’s hiring committee, says there were no major changes to the 2010 program, though concerns that the clerks might be more competitive with each other this year prompted the firm to add more team-building exercises in order to develop camaraderie.
“We said, ‘We know there’s a lot of anxiety in the marketplace, but what each of you can control is the ability to do good work,’ ” Subak says. His audience apparently took those words to heart: Thirteen of Pepper’s 14 summer clerks received job offers, according to Subak, an offer rate that he says was up from last year’s.
As in the past, Pepper Hamilton and 2010′s other top-ranking firms earned perfect or near-perfect scores in all the key categories, including the level of training, guidance, and feedback they offered summer hires, as well as the number of substantive, interesting assignments they handed out. “Pepper Hamilton is an incredible place to learn and grow as a young attorney,” one intern wrote.
“It surpassed all expectations,” echoed another Pepper clerk, noting that the firm’s lawyers–including partners–were always available and easy to talk to, and that the matters assigned to associates were substantive and important. “We worked on projects for some of Pepper’s biggest clients, and our work was being put to use by partners and associates.”
At Bingham McCutchen, this year’s second-place firm, summer clerks also took their duties seriously–perhaps in part because the firm laid out the stakes up front. “We told them all this is a ten-week job interview,” says Bingham national director of legal recruiting Ari Katz, “and that a job offer wasn’t theirs to lose. They had to earn it.”
How did the Bingham associates respond? “They all worked hard because they wanted to make a good impression,” says Katz. (As of early September, the firm hadn’t decided how many of its 43 summers will get offers.)
While job prospects may have been better, that didn’t stop many 2010 summer clerks from obsessing over their firms’ hiring plans. That’s not surprising, considering that three-quarters of all summer hires surveyed said they were counting on big-firm salaries to pay off law school debt. “Please, please, please don’t make us wait until March/April for offers!” wrote one intern from Las Vegas’s Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in the open-ended comments section of our survey. An Arent Fox clerk agreed: “If we deserve the offer, then please give it to us at the end of the summer. If I did a good job, please don’t torture me by making me wait.”
The presence of fewer summer clerks this year meant there was plenty of work. The interns of 2010 said they got hands-on experience drafting a wide range of briefs and motions, as well as deposing and prepping witnesses, and working on IPOs, mergers, bankruptcies, and project finance and private equity deals.
“I had the opportunity to work on a [U.S.] Supreme Court brief, several appellate briefs, and a huge congressional investigation,” raved one associate from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
An intern from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton reported that he had been deployed to Brazil to assist an M&A deal, while a Chadbourne & Parke summer associate described honing his business development skills by helping put together a client pitch, which he got a chance to test out on former New York governor George Pataki and other Chadbourne partners.
Of course, not all the summer assignments were equally exciting. “Due diligence is as boring as they say,” complained a second Cleary clerk. And some summer associates found they had far too much work on their hands. “Ease up on the night and weekend work for summers,” suggested a White & Case intern. “There is plenty of time for that later!” A Clifford Chance intern who also got stuck on a due diligence project agreed: “Make weekends sacred. It’s neither efficient, nor necessary, to require associates to sacrifice their entire weekends for several weeks. . . . People need time out.”
For those who had downtime, firms supplied a broad mix of recreational opportunities, such as jet skiing, fishing trips, whirlyball, skeet-shooting, white-water rafting, baseball games, and golf, plus casino and comedy nights, a Lady Gaga concert, and plenty of karaoke.
Summer clerks also seemed to have at least some dining opportunities reminiscent of prerecession days, including ten-course meals, lunch at the Four Seasons, and, for some Haynes and Boone summers, a dinner in Dallas where one intern fondly recalled “smoking cigars and drinking scotch while being served steaks.”
Still, as was also true in 2009, this year’s summers generally had to make do with less sumptuous meals and more pedestrian outings and activities–and many clerks felt shortchanged. “Snacks on the terrace should have booze,” wrote a Kirkland & Ellis clerk, adding that, in his view, the firm had cut back on the summer events too much. “Lunch budget and no dinners sucks.” And few associates wanted to be reminded about how good things used to be. “One of the most aggravating things about the summer program was. . . hearing about how awesome the firm’s summer program was in the go-go days,” wrote a Ropes & Gray intern.
Because of this year’s condensed summer program schedules, many clerks complained that they didn’t get enough of a chance to show off their abilities, or get a feel for the type of law they’d like to practice. “Two months is not enough time both to show the quality of work I am capable of and to be evaluated,” wrote one summer clerk from Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff in Indianapolis.
“I would love the program to be longer,” agreed an intern from DLA Piper U.S., “as it seems like, just as we get settled in, the summer is almost over. However, I understand the financial aspects at play.”
Given the stakes, a number of associates expressed the belief that their firms should have set explicit guidelines for how much time they should be putting in. “Be clearer at the beginning of the summer about expectations (How many projects should we complete? How many hours a day should we actually “bill” vs. be at work?),” suggested an intern who spent the summer at Hogan Lovells.
“Don’t answer ‘it depends’ to questions concerning the appropriate number of assignments,” wrote a Morrison & Foerster clerk, adding that “more than any other year” this is “one of the things we are worried about.”
Above all, most summer clerks seemed to want much more transparency about the offer process–and far greater certainty about their futures. “Don’t tell us publicly to ask the tough questions when doing so is not appropriate,” wrote a summer clerk from Willkie Farr & Gallagher, who listed those tough questions as “Will we all get jobs?,” “How is the firm doing financially?,” and “What about those deferrals?”
Illustration by James Steinberg