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A Summer Associate’s Premature Departure: ‘I Would Rather Be Farming’

‘Keep your lousy lunches and wine tastings. I’d rather be driving a tractor!’

We recently extended an enthusiastic hello to Biglaw summer associates. And now, barely into June, it’s time to say goodbye — to one unusual summer associate.

Summer associate gigs are highly coveted positions. They involve lavish lunches, pool parties, and big paychecks for little work. And they’re harder than ever to obtain, which only increases their allure.

Yet one summer associate just voluntarily left his law firm — and sent around a colorful, firm-wide departure memo explaining why. Check it out; what do you think of his decision?

Think of this as 2014’s first summer associate story. We actually haven’t had very many such stories in the past few years, ever since summer programs shrank dramatically. If you have a story to share with us, feel free to email us (subject line: “Summer Associate Story”) or text us (646-820-8477). We’re happy to hear about summer stories from years past (which are safer to share because of the passage of time). We only just learned about the Latham & Watkins event from years ago where a sofa — yes, a bona fide sofa, not a piece of plastic patio furniture — wound up in a swimming pool.

On to today’s story. Yesterday a summer associate at Dinsmore & Shohl told the firm to, well, take this job and shove it. From the start of his departure memo (reprinted in full on the next page):

Farewell Dinsmore:

It was great meeting everyone and I greatly appreciate you letting me in the door. I am sorry for wasting your time, but I obviously misunderstood the role of the summer associate. Sure it’s selfish and naïve to think I should not be judged, but I simply cannot be perfect for everyone for two minutes — let alone two months. I would rather be farming — so farewell.

So this former summer associate, whom we’ll call “Future Farmer of America,” feels that he “simply cannot be perfect for everyone.” Well, perfection isn’t the standard for getting an offer; having a pulse is.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration; the days of tossing furniture into swimming pools with impunity are over. But still, as Anonymous Recruitment Director recently noted, the chances of getting an offer are still very high.

Let’s hear more about Future Farmer’s problems with the summer experience:

I can interact with people, meet deadlines and be counted on to deliver good work product. But I came here to get legal experience in trusts and estates. I have at all times been up front about this and it was wrong for the Firm to speak for Tom Bonasera. It is obvious that while I am certain to get legal experience here, I may easily squander the summer fighting for an offer I would inherently accept notwithstanding my lack of any meaningful basis other than a tough job market.

What’s the deal with Tom Bonasera? From his firm bio:

Thomas Bonasera is a Partner in the Corporate Department and a member of the firm’s Board of Directors and firm Executive Committee Member. Tom focuses his practice on trust and estate administration and litigation, estate planning and closely held business matters.

Presumably Future Farmer feels that he was promised the chance to work more extensively with Bonasera on trusts and estates matters than turned out to be the case. In his email, Future Farmer seems to allege a “bait and switch” scenario regarding T&E work. (We reached out to Bonasera and Dinsmore for this story; they declined to comment.)

This type of thing sometimes happens with summer associates. They’re told they’ll get to work on big-ticket M&A deals, but then deal flow turns out to be slow, or they’re promised white-collar criminal defense work and end up working on general commercial litigation. It’s rare to see one of them quit over the issue, though — especially given the grim job market.

But Future Farmer is not your ordinary summer associate, as he himself admits:

Before you write off Georgetown or aged summer associates, I beg you to reconsider. I am not representative of the bunch. I am simply a two-year cancer survivor who must be in control of his destiny. It was probably wrong of me to think I could simply pick a niche area of law and be sheltered from the rigors of your program. But I went to law school for estate planning and will not simply roll the dice and wait until some other area of the law finds me. Why survive the day, the week, the month, or the summer if headed in the wrong direction?

The “rigors of your program”? I’m not sure that surfing lessons, Shakespeare in the Park, and heavy drinking are terribly “rigorous” activities. And summer associates are paid well, generally on the first-year associate pay scale. Turning down a summer job with a McDonald’s-level wage is somewhat understandable; this is not that.

Future Farmer acknowledges that some people might view him as, well, insane:

Again, please forgive my seemingly foolish behavior. I hate the thought of burning bridges, but I could just as easily spend the summer wasting firm resources — and I refuse. This is very much a personal decision and I wish everyone the best.

And that’s all he wrote. The entire episode is quite… puzzling. It seems that Future Farmer didn’t have a good grasp on what being a summer associate would entail (despite going to Georgetown, a top 14 law school that sends many students into summer programs each year). His admission that he “obviously misunderstood the role of the summer associate” reminds me of the quip from Private Benjamin: “See, I did join the army, but I joined a different army.”

In fairness to Future Farmer, who notes in his email that he’s a cancer survivor, he has a point: our time on the planet is limited, so don’t let it go to waste. Good luck to him as he seeks better opportunities — whether as a T&E lawyer or a sheep farmer.

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(Flip to the next page to read his email in full.)

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