Summer programs

The halcyon days of extravagant spending might be over, but BigLaw summer associate programs by and large remain a decent mix of solid work experience and merry social jamborees...


SUMMER associate programs are an integral part of BigLaw recruiting. Attrition rates are high across the profession, so firms run annual programs – which usually last from six to 12 weeks – in order to ensure a steady influx of first-year associates joins the ranks each year. A summer stint effectively serves as a prolonged interview, with clear benefits for applicants and recruiting attorneys alike: the former receive a preliminary taste of associate life, while the latter get an up-close and personal view of their potential colleagues in action. Provided all goes well, summers will receive an offer to return as a full-time first-year associate upon completion of their law degree.

Recent years have seen summer associate classes composed primarily of 2Ls. Many firms still hire a handful of 1Ls each year – often via scholarships or competitions – but the chances of nabbing a spot as a 3L have become slim: according to NALP, only 16% of firms in 2013 reported any third-year recruiting activity, with a microscopic quantity of offers made to 3Ls. As such, many law students concentrate on their application efforts during the summer following their 1L year, when the on-campus recruiting season kicks off. For information about when and how to apply for summer spots, see our feature on the OCI process..

While class sizes took a serious hit during the economic downturn there have been signs of recovery and the average class size in 2013 was close to that of the pre-2010 glory days. That said, competition is still fierce so it's vital that your grades and extracurriculars are up to scratch when you apply. Check out our feature on trends in the recruitment market for more details on class sizes and employment figures.

As a summer, you'll likely get the chance to try out work across a variety of practice groups, which “can be really helpful if you don't have a clear idea of what you want to go into,” sources agreed. Some firms, like Willkie, Milbank and King & Spalding, even have formal rotation systems in place to ensure summer associates experience a broad mix of assignments. At the end of the program, candidates typically submit a preference for a particular practice group that is taken into consideration at the offers stage.

“I felt really integrated into my practice group when I saw that my work product was actually incorporated into the matters at hand."

The summer associate experience has historically been somewhat artificial, with many firms offering made-up tasks and discrete research assignments that bear only mild resemblance to actual responsibilities. However, the recession prompted an increased reliance on summer manpower at many a cash-strapped firm, and offering 'real' work soon became not only a priority but a necessity across the profession. That trend continues today – most of our associate interviewees now report a relatively “authentic” experience as summers.

“I felt really integrated into my practice group when I saw that my work product was actually incorporated into the matters at hand,” one shared. “When I returned as a first-year, I was able to pick up one of the projects that was still ongoing and see it through to the end.” Another said: “Firms now realize the value of allowing summers to get their hands dirty with real tasks; that approach demonstrates how you will actually react under certain circumstances and prepares you for the transition into being a first-year.” Indeed, as one BigLaw hiring partner confirms, “throwing people into the mix seems to work out best for everyone involved.”

Typical summer duties include small research tasks, drafting memos and attending negotiations or depositions to observe their seniors. The last is an important part of the learning process, according to our sources. “We make the effort to get people on the phone to listen to the back and forth of arguing a case, and in client meetings so they can witness the kind of behavior that gets things done,” one hiring partner tells us. “Pro bono matters can be a real chance to stretch your wings but I never felt like I was just a flunky,” one source said. “It was small, short-term work, sure, but it was meaningful too.” When they're not 'learning by doing', students usually attend summer-specific training sessions and they're often able to opt into CLE classes alongside fully fledged associates. As well as general introductions to the different practices, summer training sessions cover topics as varied as advocacy, due diligence, depositions, legal writing and business development. Summers at some firms even undergo a mock trial.

In keeping with the post-recession trend of cutbacks across the legal sector, the culture of lavish wining and dining – a longstanding staple to the summer associate experience implemented with the intent of wooing top hires – has slowed down to some extent. “Anyone summering after 2008 will find things aren't as flashy as they used to be,” sources reported. Is this a sore spot? “Not at all; if anything it helps prepare you for the working world,” one associate said, looking back on their time as a summer. “They're not trying to seduce you into thinking associate life is something that it isn't – it's not all karaoke, free bars and boat trips down the Hudson River.”

“They're not trying to seduce you into thinking associate life is something that it isn't – it's not all karaoke, free bars and boat trips down the Hudson River.”

Still, socializing remains an important part of the summer experience, with frequent lunches, sports events, wine-tastings and theater trips among the standard perks. “You can still get tickets to a Yankees game, but they won't be behind home plate,” one source summed up. In any case, attorneys of all levels tend to look forward to the summer since “that's when the majority of the year's social events take place,” interviewees told us. Some of the more exciting traditions we've heard about include trips to Disneyland and a destination hike at Quinn Emanuel, cooking classes and Shakespeare in the Park at Debevoise & Plimpton, go-karting at Chadbourne & Parke, and mixology courses and sunset sails at Willkie. “I'd be a summer forever if I could!” one insider enthused.

Savvy summers will see these kinds of events as more than just a chance to chill out – they're golden opportunities to meet and mingle. Indeed, a hiring partner at a top international firm says: “I don't care how busy you are or how tired you are, you need to get out there and go to as many events as possible! It's as good a chance to meet and talk to people as you'll get during office hours and the more contacts you're able to make the better.”

Some firms have programs in place that let summers spend time in multiple offices or even at outside organizations with which the firm has ties. Linklaters, Debevoise and Cleary – all large international units – allow associates to spend part of their summer in an overseas office. “Having that opportunity helped me make valuable connections with my international colleagues and offered a good insight into how the firm operates abroad,” said one source who'd split their time between London and New York. Others – including Vinson & Elkins, Simpson Thacher and Cadwalader – offer the chance to spend several weeks working with a local public interest organization. Others still run mini client secondments for summer associates – Cleary, for example, offers a two-week stint at an investment bank. Check out our features on all of these firms for more info. 

“I'd be a summer forever if I could!” 

When it comes to landing an offer, a good impression is imperative – a summer stint is akin to an audition, after all. Whether you're responding to a partner's request or schmoozing at a drinks event, engage appropriately and keep to your best behavior to show you're taking the opportunity seriously. As one BigLaw hiring partner shares, “being enthusiastic about the work is just as important as demonstrating you're capable of doing it as far as I'm concerned.” Other interviewees advised summers to “maintain a positive attitude” and “show a genuine interest in what's going on at the firm and where it's heading.” That said, “there's certainly room to relax” during the program, our sources assured us, referring to the myriad social events planned at most firms. “Just don't go overboard with the booze!” Indeed, the point of offering opportunities for associates to let their hair down is to assess candidates' overall personalities, “including how they interact outside a work context,” one hiring partner reveals. “It's a good glimpse into people's attitudes and what it'll be like interacting with them on a day-to-day basis.”

Since the recession, offer rates from summer programs have been high. A tightened grip on financials has prompted a growing number of firms to limit summer hiring to those they intend to keep on for good, and the ability to claim a 100% offer rate has become something like a badge of pride on the recruiting side. “We always aim to keep everyone, and it's rare when we don't end up with offers across the board,” one hiring partner tells us. “When that happens, it's because we haven't done our job perfectly and it turns out someone doesn't really fit in or didn't pan out in terms of our expectations.” The latest NALP report shows that more than 91% of summer associates in 2013 received offers, a figure up considerably from the 69.3% reported in 2009.