Crash Diet for Law Firms: Less Dessert for Summer Associates

summer nyob fin Crash Diet for Law Firms: Less Dessert for Summer AssociatesHere’s a fun game: At the start of the summer, weigh the thousands of summer associates employed by the Am Law 100—the nation’s 100 top-grossing law firms, according to The American Lawyer magazine. Then weigh these thousands of summer associates after their summer programs, before they head back for their final year of law school. The aggregate weight gain represents a decent measure of the economic health of the legal industry (and, by extension, the broader economy).

At the moment, the economy is flailing, if you hadn’t noticed. So why are firms so reluctant to make any significant changes to their summer programs?

When you stop and think about it, the summer associate programs at New York’s largest corporate law firms are a shockingly inefficient way to recruit talent.

The top firms pay their summers over $3,000 a week—a week!—to enjoy three-hour lunches and surf the Web, and do a little bit of work on the side, but just a little, on the firm’s most interesting and sexy matters. Don’t forget the cooking lessons, wine tastings, pool parties, a clambake or a cruise—all of it carefully designed to create in these future lawyers a Pavlovian association between Big Law and Big Pleasure.

Cutting back on these perks would seem to be an easy way for firms to save money without causing too much uproar. In fact, firms might earn brownie points with their clients for showing such restraint.

 

AS IT HAPPENS, a few firms are making slight adjustments to their programs. But they’re doing it in fairly subtle ways: by shortening the length of summer programs, and by hosting smaller summer associate classes.

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, for example, are capping their summer programs at 10 weeks (which falls on the shorter side; most programs run from 10 to 12 weeks). Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner, which laid off 26 associates earlier this year, went farther, cutting its program from 11 weeks down to eight.

That may not seem like a big deal. But then again, two weeks’ salary saved, multiplied by 26 summer associates, equals one first-year associate.

Several firms have also reduced the size of their summer classes. According to data collected by the National Association for Law Placement, New York’s 10 largest law firms are hiring 1,014 summer associates this year, a decline of 9.3 percent from 2007. Smaller summer classes, smaller restaurant and bar tabs.

From the firms’ perspective, the good thing about trimming summer programs in length and size, rather than in lavishness, is that they can be justified by reference to reasons other than a desire to cut costs.

Sonnenschein’s chairman, Elliott Portnoy, explained the firm’s reduction of its summer program in an e-mail: “We believe that the August vacation season for our attorneys is simply not a period that is conducive to a positive Summer Associate experience.”

(That’s a polite way of saying that there are costs even Big Law will not eat.)

A few midsize and regional firms, such as Gibbons Del Deo in Newark, have abandoned summer programs altogether in favor of focusing on poaching experienced attorneys from other firms. But that’s not really an option for the big boys in New York, where the slightest eyebrow twitch at Sullivan & Cromwell, say, leads to an epidemic of twitching across the city. Plus, all those graduating law students have to start somewhere.

 

THE SHAME IS that firms could be using the weak economy as an opportunity to revamp their summer programs—which they’re going to have to do sooner or later—to make them more efficient. Instead, they’re simply giving law students “less of the same,” making quantitative rather than qualitative changes to their summer programs. It’s a way for them to economize on summer programs but on the sly, without having to own up to it fully.

This is not surprising: The incentives are aligned so as to discourage innovation in summer programs, which are governed by the same lockstep mentality that applies to associate salaries, bonuses and so many other aspects of Big Law life. Whence this mentality? Maybe it’s the legal profession’s fundamental conservatism, or its acute sensitivity to status. Regardless, if everyone else’s summer programs feature cooking lessons, a wine tasting, a golf outing and a Broadway show, then your firm’s summer program darn well better feature cooking lessons, a wine tasting, a golf outing and a Broadway show. You may not stand out, but at least you won’t become a laughingstock.

And there’s the perception issue: the sense that plying 25-year-olds with cocktails and canapés is what a firm must do to play in the big leagues. But there may also be a self-perception issue. Think of Big Law as a dowager fallen on hard times, in desperate need of cash, who refuses to sell the family china. Why? She sees it as her birthright, an integral part of who she is.

There is also a certain amount of nostalgia involved. Partners see the summer-associate experience as a sort of law-firm rumspringa: a chance to explore and to indulge before settling down to a life of work and responsibility. Partners look back fondly on their own summer-associate days and can’t bring themselves to deny that experience to today’s lawyers-in-training.

But how long can the forces of nostalgia and inertia stave off the inevitable? At a certain point, the collective expansion of summer associate waistlines will give way to a far more powerful force: Big Law’s bottom line.