Summer is finally here, and the halls of Biglaw are more clogged than usual. But it is not because the partners have been hitting the desserts harder at their monthly meeting in an attempt to look even worse during bathing suit season. Nope, the guys and gals walking the halls do not look like your typical Biglaw legal eagle. They are too young, too fit, and too excited to be there.
Yup, it is summer associate season. A new crop of recruits, eagerly brandishing their 1L transcripts as evidence of their legal ability, ready to conquer Biglaw. Or at least to eat as much good free food as they can, while pretending to “work” in between breakfast with the real-estate group, lunch with the litigators, and a social event after-hours with whatever motley crew of “presentable” lawyers the firm can pull together.
There were strict rules as to which lawyers were allowed to interact with the summers. It usually came down to looks/personality, and enthusiasm for the firm. Everyone wanted the summers to leave with a good impression. No firm wanted to be lowly-ranked on the summer associate surveys that would follow summer associate season. “Uh-oh, our five summer associates in Miami gave us a 3.8 out of 5 on their happiness scale. This is a crisis — next year we need to rent a party boat for an impromptu cruise to Key West, and make everyone take the survey while still happily boozed up.”
Quaint as it now seems, that kind of thinking (if only a bit exaggerated) was normal for Biglaw in the go-go late-90s and 2000s. Oh how times have changed….
Summer associate programs used to be a bigger deal than they are today. They were the prime way of getting into a Biglaw firm. And you were basically stuck if you did not make it into the firm you wanted. Usually, you would need to sweat it out for a few years before you could try and lateral (into the firm you really wanted to start at) as a mid-level. Absent a spectacular lack of personal judgment, you were getting an offer. And firms were trying like mad to get you to like them — and think that working at the firm would be fun, exciting, and the greatest thing you would ever experience.
As with everything Biglaw, things are VERY different nowadays. Trying to turn a summer Biglaw fling into a commitment? That is harder than ever.
First off, the list of firms that are gung-ho on bringing in summer associates at all is a small one. Think of your typical member of the New York-based, white-shoe, churn-and-burn crew, or their close national competitors. Even these prestigious firms have severely cut back on the size of their summer associate classes. It’s kind of like replacing the cashiers with self-checkout lanes at supermarkets: cashiers make things easier for customers, but when times are tighter, you want to cut out those things that customers don’t care a whit about. And Biglaw clients don’t care about summer associates a whit, unless some daredevil partner tries to sneak some summer associate time on a bill. That will get a reaction from a client — just like everyone complains when the cashier has a heavy hand with the scanner and rings up multiple items twice. For many Biglaw firms, summer associate classes have become a way of projecting financial strength (or for the worse off, viability), while in the past they were a way to get badly-needed fresh blood into the door. Thanks, Biglaw Black Death.
Second, offers are not guaranteed. Along the way, someone realized that when the market for entry-level attorneys is a terrible one, no-offering a couple of summers would not be such a big deal. In effect, the tournament for the eager-beaver Biglaw-partner aspirants now starts the minute they enter the Biglaw workplace for the first time. (At some level, it starts at birth actually.) No pressure, summers — you just have to realize that a whole lot of people in the firm look at you as an expense and vanity item for the powerful partners running the firm, and will regard you warily as a result. For example, your rank-and-file partner is often completely disassociated from the summer associate recruiting process, and once the summers are in the door, may get to meet them only briefly at a practice group meeting. And forget about associates and staff — in an age of layoffs and no staff bonuses for years on end, you really can’t expect the staff to celebrate your good financial fortune for a make-work gig. But everyone in Biglaw has the power to destroy, so make sure you are nice to everyone, at all times.
So what can you do to extract maximum value from your summer associate experience? Getting an offer comes first. That starts with looking as presentable as you can. Having one drink maximum at social events. Not spending more than ten minutes in conversation with any lawyer you meet, unless they are willing to let you tag-along to a deposition or court appearance. (If you get such an invitation, go. Try and pretend like you belong, and not that you won some form of jackpot.) And not gossipping with your fellow summers. They are all just competing to join you as part of the first-year class. Also, start paying down your student loans with your earnings. Save some party money for a trip after the bar exam. This summer you are working.
More tips. Never mention law school, unless the lawyer you are talking to brings it up first. If they are an alumnus of your school, invite them to brag about how well they did. If they went to a different school, say something nice about the other school and move on. You do not want to offend anyone. Remember that no one cares about your grades or law review note topic. In fact, no one wants to hear you talk about the law at all. So don’t, unless you are asked to, perhaps when you have handed in an assignment.
Learn as much as possible about what clients the firm works for. And which client matters are keeping folks busy. Research those matters, and in particular how those matters are important to the client’s business. Have something interesting to say about that client if it ever comes up. Figure out which younger partners are focusing on business development — offer to help them with an article or researching for a pitch. And don’t forget what should be one of your greatest strengths: your technology expertise. Many an older partner would appreciate/benefit from some handy technology-related pointers. Like how to send a text message. (I am only partly kidding.) Ultimately, you can learn a lot by observing what really goes on in a Biglaw office. If you see a way of improving things, particularly using technology, don’t be shy. If you don’t, I hope you enjoy your summer in the Biglaw fishbowl.
It would be interesting to hear from a current Biglaw summer associate. If you are interested, email me, and let me know why you think you would be an interesting summer associate to interview. I’ll do my best to make you look good — or at least “anonymous you” look good, assuming you don’t want to have your name revealed publicly.
What do you think of the summer associate experience nowadays? Let me know your thoughts by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.