The End of Summer (Programs)

On-campus interviewing is already underway at many law schools, and law students are obviously worried about their job prospects this fall. According to NALP, law firms had already cut back their hiring dramatically last year compared to the year before. Based on early feedback from law students and firms so far, as well as the number of firms that are forgoing summer programs altogether for 2010, it doesn’t look good for 2Ls interviewing on campus right now.

Assuming the economy bounces back, law firms will need to ramp up hiring to cope with the increased workload, particularly after laying off many associates, but it seems likely that law firm hiring at law schools will be very different. The economic downturn is a shock to the hiring system that has been in place for decades now—heavy recruiting of 2L students into lavish summer programs, with a high percentage of those students receiving permanent offers during the following fall of their 3L year. Right now, some firms are simply doing away with summer programs for the time being and freezing entry-level hiring out of law schools. Almost all big law firms are limiting the size and duration of their summer programs, and many are deferring the start date by six months to a year for new permanent associates who receive offers out of their summer programs.

I wonder how many of the new changes to law firm recruiting and summer programs will be permanent and remain after the economy bounces back.

On the more dramatic end, law firms that have frozen recruiting at law schools at the moment might decide not to run summer programs even after they begin to ramp up hiring once again. Hiring 3Ls, or recent graduates on the spot market, would offer law firms a longer track record for each student on which base hiring decisions and save the expense of sponsoring a summer program. Summer programs were a way for law students to acclimate to a firm’s culture and practices, while allowing the firm a chance to observe and get to know law students without formally committing a permanent offer to them. However, summer programs were famously expensive, produced less real work than firms might have liked, and as a practical matter, resulted in most or all summer associates receiving permanent offers anyway. If enough law firms decide summer programs aren’t worthwhile anymore, then firms that try to hire all or most of their entry-level associates as 3Ls or recent graduates, without running them first through a summer program, won’t suffer a competitive disadvantage in recruiting talent.

At minimum, even law firms that continue to recruit 2Ls into summer programs will curtail the lavishness, size, and duration of those programs on a permanent basis compared to what they were during the past twenty years. Boston firms have long limited the duration of their summer programs from May through July, but firms in other big cities, at least when I was a law student, typically didn’t cap the number of weeks that summer associates could work. During my 2L summer (in 1998), I worked and was paid for seventeen weeks as a summer associate, almost to the end of September. This summer, however, I understand that at least one major firm closed its program by July 4. I would be shocked if limits on when and how long summer associates can work aren’t made permanent at big firms across the country, in addition to lower summer salaries and higher expectations going forward.

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3 Responses

  1. Andrew Lund says:

    Good post, Michael. I’m skeptical of the “permanency” of any of this, though. In my experience, few people thought that summer programs were anything other than a way to induce talented law students to pick Firm A over Firm B. In that way, summer programs were really a form of signing bonus.

    It stands to reason that, as the associate labor market has turned to a buyer’s market, summer programs – like all other forms of associate compensation – have taken a hit. But none of this is irreversible assuming, as you (correctly, I think) do, that the market will rebound. We might as well say that significant year-end bonuses will never return.

    I agree that 3L hiring might make more sense if firms could be certain that none of their competitors would defect. You say as much in your post, but that’s unlikely to be the case, right? Rightly or wrongly, the big firms are extraordinarily sensitive to marginal gains or losses in whatever criteria (grades, school, etc.) they use for hiring purposes. Unless firms stop caring whether their first-years were in the top 10% at Harvard vs. the top 75%, I’d expect that the only thing stopping lavish summer programs will be extraordinary economic downturns.

    Best,
    Andrew

  2. USD Law Student says:

    speaking as a 2L looking for a job its not fun right now. I dont really treat any of the jobs that im looking for as some type of compensatory incentive to choose firm a over firm b. I look at them as a way to develop useful skills that make me better as a future lawyer and more marketable as a job applicant. no one i know, even at the top ranker schools, is finding an employees market right now.

  3. Maryland Law Student says:

    I’m currently a 2L participating in OCI, and the biggest concern that students have in my year is that the economy WILL bounce back and firms will return to their traditional practices for summer programs, but too late for our year. So, the students in years after us will be locked into summer programs/more or less guaranteed offers while my year will constantly have to explain “Well, I was Class of 2011 so it was much harder to find a summer associate position during our OCI” and we will be scrambling to find jobs after graduation that may only be available for the deferred students of Class of ’09 or ’10 or will not be there at all due to firms accommodating their traditional 2L summer programs.
    I’m not sure if that would be the case, but it increasingly feels like Class of 2011 will be the Lost Generation.