The summer associate program is the time when eager law students are provided their first major glimpse into law firm life. They are paid well, entertained generously and offered opportunities to conduct interesting research and observe skilled attorneys at work.

This is the summer program in its best light. But what lies beneath is a pattern of behavior that places law firms at risk. Generally, the improper activities take place out of the spotlight. The anecdotes emerge during long days back at law school, where students discuss the mixed messages and uninvited overtures they noticed during their summer experience.

Following a variety of presentations during the past several months, students have quietly spoken to me, describing their experiences and observations. As they shared stories, they also expressed a sense of feeling powerless about how to respond. Their anecdotes offer a sobering look at a long-standing culture.

“The firms create an experience that is beyond the norm,” one student said. “Everything is free. The atmosphere is higher class than anything we are used to, and the pressure to attend every event, including the after-parties, is significant.” Another described similar frustrations with his summer at a premier firm: “The competition among practice groups to sponsor the best event was intense — fancy dinners, days at the beach, country clubs — all followed by late-night partying where the summers and associates drink freely.”

The rules are never explained, but known to all: The more summers attending the post-event gathering, the easier it is to justify presenting the high bar tab to the firm for reimbursement. The next day, the summers and other associates swap stories that demonstrate their drinking prowess. But it is not only the drinking that is troubling. Summer associates report an atmosphere that seems to condone inappropriate comments and sexual overtures. Consider, for example, the married partner with children who was overheard at one event asking a young woman what her dating age range was.

Law firms further contribute to the problem by sending inconsistent messages. The orientation program generally includes an admonishment against dating lawyers at the firm. But when summer associates attempt to thwart unwanted advances by noting the policy, their protestations are rebuffed with an offhand “Don’t worry about it. The firm doesn’t really care if it happens.”

It is difficult for law students to do anything but endure these awkward and difficult moments. Often deeply in debt, they know that a $160,000 offer lingers at the end of a successful summer experience. Moreover, law firms and law schools are complicit in a quiet bargain whereby summer associates who meet minimal performance standards will be offered an associate position, leading the way for firms to be welcomed back to the law school for the next recruitment season.

Even if a summer associate wanted to report a concern, the size of the summer classes generally hinders the ability to identify a supportive lawyer with whom to discuss an uncomfortable experience. The media, too, are complicit in the way they write about these programs, focusing more on size than substance. Recent articles have focused on the thinner class sizes, compared to the record-breaking year of 2007. Even with this year’s slightly lower numbers, however, most major firms hired classes larger than the size of most top firms just a decade ago. This size means more vigilance is required to monitor all aspects of the summer experience.

The best advice for how firms should address these issues comes from summer associates themselves. One suggestion is to develop clear rules for personal conduct, and communicate them not only to the summers, but to associates and partners, making it clear that everyone will be held accountable for a zero-tolerance policy. Zero tolerance needs a safe haven for communicating concern and the assignment of more than one person to whom a summer associate can confide. Firms should also cease funding the after-event partying. Simply declining to attend is not sufficient. Summers who refrain from participating report missed opportunities to get to know others on an informal basis, and are tagged as “not being fun.”

Law firms could derive a significant competitive advantage by transferring the enormous resources from late-night parties to programs providing the creative training and mentoring that students do not typically receive in law school. Firms that foster career-building skills over drinking skills are sure to have an advantage in the fiercely competitive recruitment of the talented millennial generation graduating law school today.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen (lrikleen@bowditch.com) is the author of Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law (Thomson Legalworks 2006). She is the executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success and a senior partner in the Framingham, Mass., office of Bowditch & Dewey.