Coddling the Baby Sharks

Are you ready for the summer?

This season’s batch of summer associates-law-school students with coveted summer positions at Manhattan’s most prestigious firms-certainly are. They’re the luckiest campers in New York City. They’re not being trundled off to Tanglewood, following a tangential talent in the name of self-improvement and exposure to nature. They’re here in Manhattan, sucking up the joys and sorrows of being working attorneys in the big, big city-but with lots and lots of perks, planned outings and awkward, drunken cocktail parties to keep things pleasant.

They will be coddled with chair massages and a bartending class, treated to deals on memberships at the SportsClub/LA and free tickets to shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. They will tread the pathways, well-worn by associates of summers yore, from midtown to Tribeca in search of Nobu, the lunch spot that has become emblematic of this summer mating ritual between firm and second-year law student.

But it looks as though this summer, there’s a growing emphasis on-what’s it called again?- work.

Some firms have always prided themselves on giving their “summers” or “S.A.’s” a realistic view of what working at a firm is like, rather than a sodden rumspringa to kill the time between torturous tort classes.

And more firms are following their lead.

At Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft, for example, the firm makes a point of not assigning summer associates to a specific department, so that they experience the stress of competing demands on their time.

“That’s part of the job. You learn how to be a lawyer; you learn how to juggle your time; you learn how to juggle the personalities you’re working for,” said Paula Zirinsky, director of public relations for the firm.

Part of the reason for this is that business is picking up again for the firms, and so they’re looking for extra hands on real assignments. But they’re also wary of feeding the machine, of becoming the poster child for an age of excess.

The goal of a summer-associate program’s many, many social activities is to introduce the S.A.’s to other lawyers at the firm, the idea being-perhaps counterintuitively, some disgruntled associates would say-that the more the summer associate knows about the firm, the more likely he or she is to accept an offer.

“The social events have a real purpose …. It’s a chance to get to know people at the firm on a deeper level than work assignments,” said Ellen Wayne, the dean of career services at Columbia Law School.

And while, as many point out, that can just as easily be done over a turkey sandwich in the park, even the full-time lawyers at the firms relish the summers.

Said a former lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz: “I used to love it when they arrived in May and got depressed when they left in August- because, you know, you got troops.”

This is no return to the 1980’s-the golden age of summer-associate boondoggles, the rounds of “Zagat bingo” and “fantasy nights” where, according to Harvard Law School professor David Wilkins, firms gave carte blanche to law students to “dream up their fantasy night in New York and send their law firm the bill.”

Nor is this pickup a return to the tech-boom moment, when firms were flooded with work and increasingly anted up the bonuses and perks to keep the young ‘uns from jumping ship.

Now, for example, there are limits on the amount that lawyers can expense on lunch (though some wonder if that gives lawyers an incentive to go up to that limit) and an emphasis on innovative training programs (like Shearman and Sterling’s innovative “Deal-o-Rama,” a simulated merger/hostile-takeover exercise).

Still, the firms acknowledge that they have to keep up with one another, maybe even more so now as the business flows in. And they’d rather have their first choice of associates. If it’s a bit of a mixed message-live it up; let me see you sweat-so be it.

“My sense is that competition to recruit students is up, and that offers are up and perks are up, and that students are being more discriminating about where they want to go,” said Mr. Wilkins.

“The market has definitely picked up. People are starting to do more hiring than they have in the past two years, especially in the corporate area, which is good for everything,” said Ms. Wayne.

And why so much effort?

The summer is their grand recruitment drive, their direct-marketing campaign, their pipeline not just to the 2L’s but to the naïve students below them, to whom these summers will eagerly relate the tales of their wild nights out on the town in the Summer of ’05.

“You don’t ever want to put them in the position where they’re negatively networking,” said Roger Meltzer, the hiring partner at Cahill, Gordon and Reindel. At his firm, for example, Mr. Meltzer reports that “we don’t beguile or persuade them to come, though there are the requisite social events.”

Firms also like to have a healthy yield of students who accept the offers made-not just because it soothes the ego, but because it makes training and working together easier. And for those law-student swing voters, the big corporate law firm, one current associate notes, “can be a seductive stall tactic” while they figure out where they’d like to go next.

Here follows a random sampling of the seductions for those waiting to be convinced-and a bit of advice on proper summer comportment:

-Additional reporting by Jessica Bruder. Coddling the Baby Sharks