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Automation, Bingo, Zoom: Inside a Virtual Big Law Summer Program

June 4, 2020, 9:41 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we look at how Wilson Sonsini has built a virtual summer associate program to adjust to the new Big Law work from home reality. Sign up to receive this column in your Inbox every Thursday morning.

Forget awkwardly lingering outside your office, summer associates are about to start showing up on your video calls.

Summer is here, and with many Big Law firms still in work from home mode, their law student interns are about to be too.

Elizabeth Pond, senior manager of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati’s law school recruiting, has spent much of her quarantine making a virtual experience out of the firm’s in-person summer associate program.

Here are a few of her practical tips: If you are invited to a firm “lunch,” you don’t have to eat on camera. You can trade the suits for business casual. And make sure you fill out your “bingo” card.

Starting on June 15, Wilson Sonsini’s 78 summer associates will be playing a six-week game of bingo, trying to accomplish tasks like shadowing a firm attorney, meeting a member of the firm management committee, or creating a slogan for their bingo group.

Pond even designed a logo to serve as a conference call background for interns who may be eager to cover up the fact they are working out of a bedroom. Consider it the work from home equivalent of a “student driver” placard.

“Honestly it will be helpful for us to spot them easily on the screen,” said Pond. All 78 summer associates have been offered full-time positions at the firm next year, so attorneys may want to put faces to names.

My colleague Meghan Tribe wrote earlier this week about the longer-term issues facing law firms and the 2020 summer associate class amid the coronavirus crisis, including the potential for a “lost generation” of new lawyers. Offer rates plummeted in 2009, and some worry that could happen again.

Although some summer associates have been lucky enough get a full paycheck this summer, some have seen their pay slashed. Other programs have been canceled altogether. Those going forward with programs are scrambling to turn their typical summer associate content into a virtual offering.

Meghan spoke with Mark Weber, assistant dean for career services at Harvard Law School, who said for summer associates: “It is stressful, it is anxiety producing, and their experience is going to be very different than the one they thought they’d have.”

At Wilson Sonsini, Pond has been trying to limit the changes from last year, to the degree that’s possible. She has focused on three key aspects of the summer experience: work, training, and networking.

The summer associate’s work is already doled out through a virtual process. The firm’s lawyers post job descriptions to an online platform called SWAP (Summer Work Assignment Platform), and the associates pick the work they like.

Less formal “shadowing” experiences will require more outreach by summer associates or lawyers, Pond said. But she is hopeful summer associates will have opportunities to join client calls or partner meetings. Lawyers will have incentives to meet the interns, too. They will be playing a bingo game of their own where the winner will be the first to meet all 78.

Wilson Sonsini already has a larger tech component to its summer program than many other Big Law firms, which seems appropriate for a summer in virtual mode.

Last year the firm held a “Build-a-bot” challenge where summer associates created “chat bots” to help lawyers answer legal questions. This year, they will work with legal tech startup Documate to automate a document drafting process—in lieu of a summer brief-writing requirement.

The program will give summer associates a reason to work with experienced lawyers, said David Wang, Wilson Sonsini’s chief innovation officer. But it is also an effort to build early believers in the firm’s efficiency efforts. The firm’s change management efforts are led by 50 self-selected lawyers who take the title “innovation lead.”

“In order to automate something, you really have to understand it from soup to nuts,” Wang said, adding, “ultimately, the most important thing in all of this is actually changing cultural norms and behaviors for lawyers.”

Interns will have a choice to participate in that project, write a brief, or finish training projects through a virtual platform, Inside Sherpa, Pond said. Last year’s inaugural bot challenge was oversubscribed, she said, and some summer associates complained about not being able to participate.

There is a lingering question about how much the interns will participate in the new virtual environment—especially considering they already have full-time job offers. But Pond said a job guarantee has actually increased the recruits’ eagerness to be viewed in a positive light.

“That’s one of the biggest questions we’ve gotten,” Pond said. “How do I make a good impression as a summer associate this year? How is that going to be possible?”

Worth Your Time

On Change: Dorsey & Whitney will no longer lend attorneys to help prosecutors in Minneapolis bring misdemeanor cases following the death of George Floyd, my colleague Meghan reports. Elsewhere, The American Lawyer reported on black attorneys’ experiences with racism and their reflections on lawyers’ role in social change.

On Well-Being: Lawyer assistance programs are gearing up for a surge in attorneys seeking mental health and substance abuse treatment, BLaw’s Melissa Heelan Stanzione reports. Nearly 40% of Americans said in a recent poll that coronavirus-related anxiety was affecting their health negatively.

On Lateral Moves: It was another fairly busy week for Big Law hiring. Jenner & Block said on Monday it had hired ex-UN ambassador and Boies Schiller Flexner partner, David Pressman. Shearman & Sterling added Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft financial services partner Mark Chorazak. Faegre Drinker hired two restructuring partners from Sidley Austin. Eliot Relles jumped to Weil, Gotshal & Manges after a 17-year stint with Schulte Roth & Zabel. And Jessica Nall, chair of Farella Braun & Martel’s white-collar crime and internal corporate investigations practice, joined Baker McKenzie.

On Other Moves: Litigation financier Validity Finance opened a Tel Aviv office with the hire of international disputes lawyer Eli Schulman. Elevate Services hired Stephen Allen, the former head of Hogan Lovells’ innovation efforts, as a vice president.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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