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Long, Uncertain Season Lies Ahead for Big Law Summer Associates

June 1, 2020, 10:00 AM

Summer associate programs typically serve as law students’ first introductions to life in Big Law, providing work experience coupled with lavish cocktail parties, trips to baseball games, and dinners at expensive restaurants. But this summer will be different.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced many firms to shift to shortened, virtual programs or cancel them altogether. Although some firms have guaranteed full pay and job offers to would-be summer associates, those lawyers in training won’t get some of the other perks of the gig or the chance to find out what it’s like to work for their potential future employers.

Law firms, which often live and die by their talent, are also in a tough spot when it comes to one of the most important parts of their recruitment process.

In reimagining the summer, firms have had to balance health and safety concerns with managing their talent pipeline, understanding from past experience that decisions made now can have long-term implications.

“Law firms have put such a huge emphasis on how to handle their summer programs and, while they need to protect the associates they have now, they also have to protect and invest in their future,” said Summer Eberhard, managing director in the associate practice group at Major Lindsey & Africa.

For the law students themselves, the future seems a lot less certain than it did just a few months ago. They’re hoping to avoid the sorts of setbacks firms dealt recent graduates during the Great Recession.

Lost Generation?

As the coronavirus spread across the U.S. and stay-at-home orders were issued, law firms transitioned to work-from-home operations. But the question remained: What to do with current 1Ls and 2Ls scheduled to arrive for work in mid-May?

Many Big Law firms—like Cravath Swaine & Moore, Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins, and Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe—have shifted to condensed, virtual summer programs. Cahill Gordon & Reindel is running a full-length virtual program.

Others, like Pepper Hamilton, Troutman Sanders, and Seyfarth Shaw, have opted to pull the plug on their programs completely.

Amid the changes, several Big Law firms announced lawyer and staff salary cuts, furloughs, and even some layoffs to weather the Covid-19 economic storm.

“Law firms are really having to balance taking care of their own and protecting their future and not making the same mistakes they did during the recession,” Eberhard said.

Following the Great Recession that caused massive layoffs in the legal industry, many Big Law firms canceled their summer offerings.

More half of the summer 2008 associates—the graduating class of 2009— had start dates at firms deferred beyond December 2009, according to a 2010 survey by the National Association for Law Placement. Offer rates for entry-level associate positions fell by more than 20%, from 89.9% in 2008 to just 69.3% in 2009, the survey found.

Many firms later struggled to fill holes in their associate ranks as the economy gained steam.

“If they choose to forego the summer program altogether, the cost of recruiting down the road to fill in the gaps is likely much greater than the cost of the summer program itself,” Eberhard said.

Offers and Delays

As a way to shore up their talent pipeline, many law firms have already extended guaranteed offers to their summer associates to rejoin the firm following their graduation in the fall of 2021.

“They’re playing the long game here knowing that this is going to turn around,” said Mark Weber, assistant dean for career services at Harvard Law School.

Many law firms typically extend offers to most, if not all, of their summer associates. Last summer, associate programs had offer rates of 98%, with an acceptance rate of 88%, according to a NALP report.

But Eberhard said extending guaranteed offers could be a risky endeavor given the continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. What is going to happen to this new associate class, she asked, if they are slated to start at the firm, and the work isn’t there?

“Of course, we’re in an environment of uncertainty, but we think this is the right way to go,” Orrick said in a statement of its decision to extend offers to its 55 2Ls to rejoin the firm as first-year associates.

Other law firms, like Baker McKenzie, Latham & Watkins, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, are proceeding as they normally would and making offers at the end of their summer sessions. But how law firms gauge summer associates’ work in a virtual setting is yet another challenge.

Bar exam delays prompted by public health concerns have also impacted law firm hiring. Orrick was one of the first to announce delays to its start date for its incoming fall class to January 2021.

“Our short-term view is that we have a commitment to this class. Our long-term view is that it’s important to continue to invest in our talent pipeline,” the firm said.

From a reputational standpoint, what Big Law firms do this summer also can have consequences for future recruitment. In the never-ending fight for new talent, law students examining the market in future years may recall which kept commitments to their summer associates, including financial ones, and which did not, Eberhard said.

Second Guessing The Future

Law students, who did their on campus interviews with firms as the market was booming, have had their worlds turned upside down in a matter of a few months.

“It is stressful, it is anxiety producing, and their experience is going to be very different than the one they thought they’d have,” Weber said. Harvard Law School has delayed its early interview program, where rising 2Ls interview on campus with prospective law firms, from late July to January 2021.

Weber said it’s not clear how in a remote summer setting employers can introduce students to the firm, get to know candidates, and provide them with training. On the flip side, he wondered whether students can build a real rapport with the firm and its attorneys.

A second-year law student in Texas, poised to take part in a virtual summer program at an Am Law 100 firm, had definite hesitations about going ahead with the job. The student declined to be named to preserve relationships at the firm.

“Even though I’m trying to be understanding, it still just seems inauspicious enough that I would now second guess myself in a way that I wasn’t before,” the student said of their career trajectory.

The student expressed concerns that shortened or canceled summer programs might mean a longer learning curve that translates into lower billing rates for new associates.

The format of the summer program isn’t all that’s causing law students anxiety. As they’ve shifted to shortened or canceled programs, some law firms have cut summer associate pay to match. The list includes Baker & Hostetler, Goodwin Procter, Jackson Lewis, and Nixon Peabody.

Traditionally, summer associates are compensated handsomely for the work and may have been relying on these Big Law-sized paychecks to cover living expenses and make a dent in their law school debt.

The median pay for first and second year summer associates in top of the market New York City is $3,650 per week, according to NALP’s 2019 Associate Salary Survey. Among the nearly 400 offices surveyed across the country, the median 2L summer associate salary was $2,800 per week, the report found.

Still, second-year law students unhappy with their summer experiences may not be jumping at the chance to wade back into the job market during a time of economic uncertainty.

“A bird in the hand might be better than pursing what else is out there, especially if the economy is really going to continue trending downward,” the law student said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Meghan Tribe in New York at mtribe@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com

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