The Situationist

The Situation for Law-Firm Summer Associates

Posted by Will Li on July 29, 2008

It will soon be that time of year again: Time for job fairs; time for campus interviews; time for some serious introspection. For most second-year law students, law firms and the life of summer associates at firms is a topic that, by October feels paradoxically repeated and rehashed ad nauseum by one’s peers and advisers; and yet, law-firm life remains a complete mystery. A summer associateship might seem the perfect antidote.

But as a recent article written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen for The National Law Journal (and highlighted in the Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog) points out, maybe summer associates are subject to situational pressures that make their experience more an illusion than an realistic sample of life at a law firm. Both the article and the blog post echo concepts that regular readers of this blog may recognize. Here are some excerpts.

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“The firms create an experience that is beyond the norm,” one student said. “Everything is free. The atmosphere is higher class than anything we are used to, and the pressure to attend every event, including the after-parties, is significant.” Another described similar frustrations with his summer at a premier firm: “The competition among practice groups to sponsor the best event was intense — fancy dinners, days at the beach, country clubs — all followed by late-night partying where the summers and associates drink freely.”

The rules are never explained, but known to all: The more summers attending the post-event gathering, the easier it is to justify presenting the high bar tab to the firm for reimbursement. The next day, the summers and other associates swap stories that demonstrate their drinking prowess. But it is not only the drinking that is troubling. Summer associates report an atmosphere that seems to condone inappropriate comments and sexual overtures. Consider, for example, the married partner with children who was overheard at one event asking a young woman what her dating age range was.

Law firms further contribute to the problem by sending inconsistent messages. The orientation program generally includes an admonishment against dating lawyers at the firm. But when summer associates attempt to thwart unwanted advances by noting the policy, their protestations are rebuffed with an offhand “Don’t worry about it. The firm doesn’t really care if it happens.”

It is difficult for law students to do anything but endure these awkward and difficult moments. Often deeply in debt, they know that a $160,000 offer lingers at the end of a successful summer experience. Moreover, law firms and law schools are complicit in a quiet bargain whereby summer associates who meet minimal performance standards will be offered an associate position, leading the way for firms to be welcomed back to the law school for the next recruitment season.

Even if a summer associate wanted to report a concern, the size of the summer classes generally hinders the ability to identify a supportive lawyer with whom to discuss an uncomfortable experience. The media, too, are complicit in the way they write about these programs, focusing more on size than substance. Recent articles have focused on the thinner class sizes, compared with the record-breaking year of 2007. Even with this year’s slightly lower numbers, however, most major firms hired classes larger than the size of most top firms just a decade ago. This size means more vigilance is required to monitor all aspects of the summer experience.

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While directly analogizing law firms to Guantanamo Bay or prison wouldn’t be fair (and also would likely ruin the chances of this 2L landing any job, let alone a firm job), it might still be instructive to compare the situational pressures and power dynamics faced by individuals in these settings. What structures, including and beyond what the article suggests, can firms put in place in order to fix what many consider a broken culture? For a related Situationist post (which included link to still others), see Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”

The law-firm recruitment and the job search was examined last year in a three-part post titled “Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt” (Part I, Part II, Part III).

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