A Market Development for Lawyers to Cheer: Less Care and Feeding of Summer Associates

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story yesterday on cutbacks to summer associate programs.  Law firms have sharply reduced their summer associate hiring and entertainment budgets.  The cuts are sizeable and unsurprising—on average, about 20% in comparison with 2009 and almost 50% in comparison with 2008.

Bad news, right?  Not so fast.  If you’re serious about becoming a lawyer, it just may be that scaling back the gorging that was summer associate-dom at major law firms—mimicked by other firms and employers as best they could—is good for you.

You rightly could take summer associate cutbacks as further confirmation of the challenging legal employment market.  But we hardly need to confirm that.  Most market shifts have decreased opportunity in ways that are uniformly bad for new lawyers.  To the extent that the cutback in summer associates will reflect, over the next year or two, a cutback in hiring for permanent positions, this too is bad for new lawyers.  However, to the considerable extent that it’s basically a reduction in public relations budgets, it’s less worrisome.

Of all the market paroxysms, scaled back summer associate programs are perhaps the least troubling for those who really want to be lawyers.  I say this having been a beneficiary of a couple of excellent summer associate programs, one in Florida and the other in New York City.  And I had a really, really good time.

Too good a time, at least if the objective was to find out was what it’s like to work in the law as opposed to just kind of hanging out in a law-like place.  Law firms and others traditionally used summer associate programs in two ways: one, to generate their class of incoming lawyers, and two, for public relations with law schools and their students.  The latter meant that law firms would bring in a number of summers far in excess of the number they anticipated wanted to work there.  And all summers return to their law school, write glowing evaluations that are basically the same, referring to the high-quality work (whatever that means), great people, etc.  That in turn generates the next class of summers.  Many law school career counseling offices are not, in fact, abreast of the legal employment market as a whole (witness the failure of some prominent law schools to anticipate the current environment), much less of individual employers.  They often have little helpful information for law students deciding where they want to work.  So the chipper, anodyne (except for the occasional flame-review) and essentially meaningless summer associate reviews of employers helped keep employers in position for next year’s hunt.

Thus, a cutback in summer numbers is largely a reduction in employers’ PR budgets.  The only loss there is to people who wanted a fun-filled, well-paid summer before they went on with their other career plans.  Nice to have but hardly tragic when it disappears.

The reduction in perks, the other element of the Inquirer article, is not only something not to be mourned, but should be welcomed.  The bottom line is that once you start working for real, you won’t eat every day at the city’s best restaurants and won’t be able to snare tickets to exclusive events (and will sometimes have to cancel when you do and give your tickets to, among others, summer associates).  The summer associate experience is a fiction as a way to acclimate beginning lawyers to real legal work and its demands.

I was lucky enough to snare part-time work during my third year of law school at the firm I joined (and summered at).  That was a better chance to see how the place ran and to get a feel for how lawyers worked there day in and day out, that is, to understand what lawyers did and make real progress in figuring out what kind of lawyer I wanted to be.  The summers were less fruitful (with a few notable exceptions).  For all the fun (and did I mention that it was a gas), there were fewer opportunities to start to become a lawyer.

That was then; this is, well, not then.  The reduction in the size and extravagance of summer programs may well allow summer associates to spend more of their day acting as associates and becoming lawyers.  That should be a good thing for beginning lawyers and for the legal profession as a whole.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on July 8, 2010.

2 Responses to “A Market Development for Lawyers to Cheer: Less Care and Feeding of Summer Associates”

  1. […] to work for them.  Decreasing the size of those programs—and the attendant perks—may provide a welcome opportunity for law firms to provide more intensive training to the summers they hire and, for the summers, a […]

  2. […] lifestyle.  That’s why the reduction of “goodies” in summer associate programs is likely a long-term benefit for new lawyers; they’ll have a better opportunity to find out during summer programs what lawyers actually do […]

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