Summer associate programs facing extinction?

youre-firedThe past months have been an endless parade of bad news for associates in big law firms between layoffs and deferred start dates for new hires. One recent ABA article discussed the impending collision between associates deferred from this fall and those scheduled to start in 2010.

This traffic jam, combined with the continuing financial pressure on law firms, will only worsen in the months ahead. Back in 2004, after the dot com slow down, I published an article in the NALP Bulletin suggesting that perhaps the time had come to revamp summer associate programs (PDF). It looks like the future is now.

Large law firms created summer associate programs for two main reasons — as a way to test out new legal talent over the course of several months (an extended job interview, if you will) and as a means of connecting potential new associates with attorneys already in practice. However, this test drive period has proven to be costly — and clients are no longer willing to bear the expense of law firm hiring and training. In addition, in an age of both economic uncertainty and mobility, summer associate programs provide little guarantee that new associates won’t leave after only a short time in practice. In essence, these programs have become a luxury law firms can ill afford.

So if these programs are on their way out, what should replace them? Perhaps a return to “normal” hiring practices. (Normal in the sense that the rest of the world tends to operate this way.)  Second year law students would get hired for summer positions without the expectation of a long term committment. Instead of wooing summer associates, law firms, large and small, would turn to the third year law student market for their main hiring. This would have the twin advantages of giving law students more time to consider their prospective career options and law firms a better sense of their actual hiring needs for their entering class.

Some Deferred Start Dates May Become Withdrawn Offers | ABA

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  • I certainly agree that the days of high-paid, cushy summer associate jobs, with social events several times a week and the opportunity to work on high-profile pro bono death penalty cases, may be behind us. But large law firms have a difficult time hiring new associates. They try to lure the law students with the most beautiful transcripts but inevitably learn that some people just can’t get the work done, or don’t know how to get along with staff, or don’t take initiative, etc. Considering how much firms invest in associates, they need some way of figuring out who is worth the investment.

    One problem with a summer associate program, I would think, is finding enough meaningful work for the associates to ramp up the program in June and then finding people to hand it off to at the end of August. Perhaps we’ll see some blending of summer associate programs with school-year clerkships that allow firms to really get to know students before making them offers.

    • I think one major problem with traditional summer associate programs is though they are purported to serve the purpose of weeding out the less-than-stellar performers that Eric mentions, firms have had a strong incentive to give offers to virtually all summer associates (except in extreme cases) for fear of being marked as a firm with a low offer ratio would hurt them in recruiting in the future.

      My sense is that this is beginning to change, but the fact that firms feel such peer pressure to make their programs as enticing as possible, leads them to act in ways that benefit neither the firm nor future associates.

  • Will Geer

    Small firms have been establishing summer clerkships that transition into school-year clerkships for years Eric, and I wholeheartedly agree with Leora that 3Ls should be considered amongst the pool of applicants in the future.

  • Will Geer

    I agree with Steve, didn’t mean to get you two mixed up :)

  • Will Geer

    Unless you “back that ass up,” which one summer associate from my sister’s class definitely did. Word to the wise: Don’t flash a partner at the summer retreat. She didn’t receive an offer. I’m not so sure these programs will be carried out more logically in the future. I think we’ll just see a smaller number of associates each summer.

  • I think there are important questions here that go to how larger law firms can rejigger their hiring practices to better match their needs, market conditions and law student expectations.

    Is a summer clerkship the best way to “weed out” the lower performers, as Aaron suggests?
    Are there other indicators of strong performance that firms could use in the hiring process in lieu of the summer stint?
    Why does the summer clerkship HAVE to lead to the expectation of an offer?
    Do summer associate programs instill loyalty to the law firms or are there better/alternative ways of doing that?
    Can any employer realistically plan their needs two years ahead with enough certainty to avoid the kind of layoffs and deferrals we are currently witnessing?
    Which firms will take the first steps to changing the process? The herd mentality is very strong in law firms.