Tart Reform! Facing Heat, Legal Ladies and Laddies Stay Buttoned

lat Tart Reform! Facing Heat, Legal Ladies and Laddies Stay ButtonedSomething is different this year. Over eight-top lunches at the Modern and partner dinners at Per Se, there’s a palpable silence between courses. (Thank goodness for BlackBerrys!) Meanwhile, the same question keeps echoing around the corridors of Big Law: Where have all the summer associate scandals gone?

Summer associates—law students who spend their summers “working” at law firms, in between being wined and dined and ferried around Manhattan—are reliable generators of laughs and, periodically, tabloid-worthy gossip.

Of course, most summers—they’re first-name only, sort of like “illegals”—behave themselves and work hard. They don’t want to jeopardize their chances of getting The Offer: an invitation to return to the firm full time, after they finish law school, at a current starting salary of $160,000. Still, every year one summer takes it upon himself or herself to drink too much, spend too much, hit on a partner’s wife, send a profanity-laced e-mail to the entire firm, or, say, strip down at a charity event and jump into the Hudson.

But this year? Nada. Zip. Zilch. And don’t think the legal world hasn’t taken note.

“When [scandals] happen, I’m aware of them, especially if they involve our students,” said Mark Weber, assistant dean for career services at Harvard Law School. “If something off-the-wall happens, typically a hiring partner will call a law school to say, ‘Here’s what’s going on, and you should know about it.’ Fortunately, and this is a good thing from my perspective, it has been a quieter year.”

What the hell is going on? The inquiry does not lend itself to definitive answers; it’s inherently speculative. But speculation is fun! Here are a few theories that have been floated to explain the dearth of summer scandals.

 

1. It’s the Economy, Stupid. This is the least sexy explanation, but probably the most likely: The weak economy has summer associates scared straight. Law firms are weathering the downturn better than many other businesses—e.g., investment banks—but they haven’t been immune. Several firms have openly acknowledged laying off lawyers, and many more are rumored to be engaging in “stealth layoffs.” As a result, summer associates aren’t taking anything for granted.

This is the explanation most commonly cited by summers when asked why this campaign has been, well, so darn lackluster. “People are scared about not getting a job this year,” said one summer (who, like the others I spoke to, did not want to be named for fear of getting no-offered). “There isn’t that sense that any lawyer from a fairly good school will have a job somewhere. So people are staying on their best behavior so they don’t ruin their chances.”

A second summer concurred: “I would agree that there’s probably a little bit of no-offer anxiety because of the economy,” he said. “At least, I’m on my best behavior because of that.”

“Everybody has their heads down, and they’re being very, very serious,” said law-firm consultant Bruce MacEwen, who blogs about law-firm economics at Adam Smith, Esq. “In the past, there really had to be a ‘cock-up,’ to use a Britishism, for [a summer associate] not to land an offer. In this environment, people are feeling pretty insecure, and they’re afraid that anything less than complete devotion might put them on the line.”

Michele Landis Dauber, a professor of law and sociology at Stanford Law School, sees a socioeconomic factor at play as well. “Remember that lawyers, even those from top 10 schools, are not the children of the elite,” she said. “They are the children of the professional and middle classes. Elite children go to business school, not law school. [Law students] are seeing their parents’ homes lose value, perhaps their parents or other relatives lose their jobs or see their pension funds shrinking. … In that environment, I think ‘head down’ is the proper position, and they seem to be assuming it.”

Firms like to claim that their hiring practices with respect to summer associates will be unchanged this year—i.e., that a summer has to work hard not to get a offer. “In the last week, I met with a handful of law firms, and everyone said we don’t expect any changes in our hiring practices,” said Mr. Weber of Harvard Law School. But, he added, summer associates are still nervous about the economy and how it might affect their job prospects. “They read the blogs, they read the newspapers, and they have reason to be concerned.”

 

2. Big Law Is Watching. Could it be that scandals are being deterred because of a fear of publicity in the Internet age? Think of this as the Big Law version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: Observation of a thing affects the thing itself. Under this theory, summers are behaving themselves because they know that if they get out of line, they will immediately be plastered all over Internet message boards, like AutoAdmit and Greedy Associates, and legal gossip blogs (including the one that I run, Above the Law).