More law, less play

Once recruited on good times, more summer associates prefer real work

May 30, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

With ball games, barbecues and boat trips, area law firms have wooed another batch of summer associates -- in hopes they will stay on.

It's a time-honored tradition that's evolved with economic times and the competition for good candidates.

But now, sandwiched between crab feasts and casino nights, happy hours, golf games, and even a tour of the King Tut exhibit at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, there is more legal work than ever before.

"Every year we seem to ratchet down the number of social events," said Jason M. St. John, head of Baltimore law firm Saul Ewing LP's summer program. "The students are saying, `We want to do real work.'"

Swollen with record profits, many of the nation's largest law firms are beefing up their numbers of summer associates this year. Typically, those positions come with a fat summer paycheck -- generally a prorated version of what a first-year associate would make -- and entree to a permanent position. A survey of 146 firms by The American Lawyer found that they intended to hire more than 7,000 summer associates, up about 9 percent from last year.

Even as they jockey to land top students, firms are looking for a return on their considerable investment --in work produced and as a way to lock in promising talent and winnow out anyone who doesn't measure up. And students want real-life immersion.

"Summer associate programs are robust this year at all the large law firms," said Marci Krufka, a principal with Altman Weil, a management consulting firm for legal organizations. "In the past few years, we're seeing more and more small and midsized firms change their hiring strategies, and they've done more lateral hiring rather than having large summer associate programs or first-year associate classes. Summer associate programs are a big investment, and in terms of profitability, associates don't become profitable until their third or fourth year."

That means fierce competition for prized spots, industry experts say.

Ellen Feldman, the senior attorney placement director in Baltimore for national recruiting firm Special Counsel, said that has put law firms in a position to be choosy and demanding.

"There are more lawyers than jobs," she said. "The firms really have the upper hand."

The Baltimore office of DLA Piper, one of the world's largest law firms, is hiring 13 summer associates -- the local result of firmwide interviews at 41 law schools and 10 job fairs that attracted 6,500 resumes for 108 slots, 16 more than last year. The 13 were picked from among 62 students invited to Baltimore for second interviews.

Those associates will earn $2,800 a week, more than $30,000 for the summer, said Hugh Marbury, hiring partner for DLA Piper's Baltimore office.

"They know the job can be challenging, and they want a realistic portrayal of that," Marbury said. "If we tell them something that is not accurate about what our lives are like, they're not going to stay. We give them real work, billable work for real clients."

Summer associates spend three weeks each in litigation, transactional law -- dealing with corporate law and securities -- and in a third area that covers tax, bankruptcy, environmental and estates and trusts, Marbury said. About 95 percent are subsequently hired, Marbury said.

"Our goal is to hire every single person who goes through our summer class," Marbury said.

Jennifer DeRose is one whose 2005 summer position at Saul Ewing is turning into a permanent post. After a year as a clerk in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, she's set to start there in September.

"I think the only thing the summer associates program can't reproduce is the volume -- that you have a lot of projects and that you see them through at different rates," she said.

On the lighter side, the 37-year-old mother of three said that she was treated to social activities a few times a week, including a day at Hersheypark in Pennsylvania.

"I probably consumed my own weight in crab meat by the end of the summer," she quipped. "But, you're not going to be fooled into thinking it's parties all the time."

Ben Schuman, 31, a Georgetown law student who hopes to be a litigator, said DLA Piper was his top choice among the three job offers he landed.

"When I interviewed with them they impressed me with the size of their practice, the extent of their pro bono work and just the quality of the people," said Schuman, an opera singer who ran his own company in New York.

He's happy about the industrywide push to give summer associates more legal work.

"This is going to be my career," Schuman said. "I want to know what it's like, rather than playing golf and getting free drinks."

Attorney Thomas A. Hauser understands firsthand. He remembers his days as a summer associate in 1990 as largely a whirl of golf outings, baseball games and sailing.

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