The 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.