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Quinn Emanuel Wants to Steal Your Summer Associates

July 6, 2016, 8:42 PM

Are you summering at a top law firm and just unhappy with how things are going? Have a bad manager? Or are you just unimpressed by the perks? Or perhaps you’d just like the opportunity to work at a law firm where partners bring in $4.4 million on average.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan is offering $35,000 signing bonuses to first-year associates who come onboard after spending a summer program with another law firm.

In other words, it’s a nice little how-do-ya-do to its fellow law firm competitors.

“It’s incentivizing them not to work at the place where they went that summer,” said Bill Urquhart, name partner of Quinn Emanuel, on an international phone call from Zurich. “We’re trying to break the inertia.”

Last year, the 700-lawyer litigation firm announced that it would largely do away with summer associate programs and recruit third-year law students and judicial clerks. The $35,000 signing bonus is a continuation of that effort, which Urquhart acknowledged is a gamble.

While the firm generally hires around 60 to 70 new associates every year, the firm’s summer associate class size dropped from 70 last year to between 12 and 14 this year, according to Urquhart. But the firm’s overall first-year associate class has remained unchanged, despite the smaller summer class. That means the firm is placing a bet that it will be able to attract 50 or so associates from other firms’ summer classes and from judicial clerkships to fill out its normal ranks.

The moment of truth will come between August and December, when third-year law students who spent a summer with another law firm will have to decide whether to stay their course, or pack their flip flops and head over to Quinn Emanuel.

“If we fail, other firms will probably never do it,” said Urquhart. “If we succeed, I suspect a lot of them will follow. We’ll know how we have done in another year or two.”

It’s a bold move, and one that is untested, which makes it even more interesting in the world of Big Law, where law firms traditionally follow the pack and are loathe to be the first mover of anything.

But Quinn Emanuel is a firm that has long done things differently. A large litigation boutique that saw revenues skyrocket from $384,500,000 to more than $1 billion over a decade, it has made much of its business unlike traditional law firms, by suing big banks.

Bucking the trend here means that Quinn Emanuel will no longer hire students who have only one year of legal education.

“I think a lot of the kids graduating from law school don’t know what life of an associate is,” said Urquhart. “They gain more information, and by the time they have gone through the summer program, if they have decided they want to do litigation, those are the people we want.”

Urquhart said Quinn Emanuel will recruit from “pretty much all” of the country’s top 15 to 20 most profitable law firms and also named a handful of law schools that he sees as prime hiring grounds (including the usual suspects): New York University, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Michigan, University of Virginia, Georgetown, among others.

Urquhart acknowledged that the firm’s decision to downsize its summer class — led by a small committee of leaders — was controversial within the firm, but said that logic made too much sense to resist.

“I think if law firms could do away with them, every law firm would because they are really expensive not just with the money you’re paying to the students but the amount of time the firms have to pay to the care and feeding of the students,” said Urquhart.

The move is also likely to strike up some controversy among other law firms. Does the firm care what its competitors think about its move to poach from their summer classes?

“Well, not really...” said Urquhart. “We care what these law students think.”

Urqhart said that he did not have a cost savings analysis available on the decision to downsize its summer class.

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