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June 9, 2011 12:44 PM

Waller Lansden Ready to Roll Out New Recruiting Program

Posted by Tom Huddleston Jr.

Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis is following through on plans to implement a new approach to recruiting under which it is moving away from the traditional on-campus interview model.

Schola2Juris--an apprenticeship program announced last fall that will see the firm hire only 3Ls based on actual full-time openings--officially launches on July 5. That's when the firm will open the application process for rising 3Ls for up to ten new jobs across the firm's various practice areas. 

As we reported in September after the firm's initial announcement, the shift away from the traditional model is significant. Not only will Waller Lansden focus only on 3Ls, who are closer to completing law school and actually joining the firm, but the six-week apprenticeship program will run in the fall--from the beginning of September into October, while the hires are still in school.

The apprentices will work remotely, for the most part, on laptops and video-conferencing software provided by the firm. And, as previously reported, those hired via the program will receive a $10,000 scholarship.

Pearson Kathleen Pearson (photo at right), Waller Lansden's director of professional recruiting, says the new model could serve as an example to other firms looking for an alternative to on-campus recruiting. "If anything, it might just open other firms' eyes to [the fact] that you can actually do something different if you take a step back," Pearson says. 

The openings are across all practice areas--finance, environmental/regulatory, tax, labor and employment, real estate, intellectual property, healthcare, litigation, and corporate. Waller Lansden has roughly 200 attorneys between its Nashville headquarters and its Birmingham, Ala. outpost.

The benefit of bringing in students who are both further along in law school and targeted to a specific practice is that it allows the firm to hire based on current needs. The alternatives: shuffling associates to fill roles for which they weren't originally recruited or hiring laterals to fill unexpected openings. (The firm will extend full-time job offers to the apprentices on October 14 for start dates that begin after graduation in 2012.) 

As Pearson sees it, the new model also allows the firm to bring in more students than a typical summer program would. 

"If we had had a traditional summer program we would have probably had four or five openings," Pearson says. "So we're able to actually be a lot more flexible based off of what our clients demands are right now."

The application process will remain open until the end of July, with in-house interviews beginning August 8. Selected applicants will travel to Nashville to interview with groups of attorneys from their chosen practice area, as well as with Pearson. "We'll really interview them [more] along the lines of the way we interview laterals," she says. "Each practice group is selecting their own [apprentices]."

Hiring decisions will be made by August 17 and the jobs will start officially on September 2.

The 3Ls will work remotely, using video-conferencing equipment to sit in on discussions, talk with advisers at the firm, and even participate in a virtual classroom for business classes. "So, they'll meet as a group, all together, and be able to interact that way," Pearson says. "And, then, they'll meet with different people throughout the firm in different group settings."

The virtual nature of the work, says Pearson, allows students across the country to participate. A four-day retreat is scheduled at Waller's Nashville office for late September, so that the apprentices have the opportunity to meet with their advisers face-to-face, shadow associates at the firm, and sit in on client meetings or trials. 

The hires will complete training modules created by each practice group that will offer apprentices a simulated experience meant to reflect the type of work they would perform as full-time associates, Pearson says.

For instance, corporate apprentices will experience the entire lifecycle of a corporate client from the drafting of documents that would be required for a company's formation to issues surrounding dissolution. In between, the apprentices will learn about such matters as shareholder agreements, M&A due diligence, and joint ventures. 

Apprentices in all practice areas will have access to all of the materials associated with a client or matter over its entire lifespan. Pearson notes that this differs from the experience of a typical summer associate, who would most likely come in partway through a matter and not be around for its conclusion.

Law schools expressed interest in the program as soon as it was announced, Pearson says: "We did have quite a few schools invite us on campus and talk about what it was going to be like and how to apply."

In addition to the law schools that initially signed on--at the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University--Pearson says she has received interest from schools in other parts of the country, including from the University of Alabama School of Law, Columbia University Law School, and Northwestern University Law School.

Pearson traveled to Chicago to speak with a representatives from Chicago-area law schools in the spring to drum up support. Her outreach continued at April's National Association for Law Placement (NALP) education conference.

Elizabeth Workman, assistant dean for career services at Vanderbilt law school, appreciates the curriculum aspect of the program as a means of training. "It means that the students will have a very in-depth, practical knowledge of their practice area at the end of six weeks that they may not get by simply working with clients without a set curriculum," Workman says.

Vanderbilt 2Ls who already have lined up summer associate positions at other firms have expressed interest in applying to Waller Lansden's apprentice program to have a fall-back option for a full-time position once they graduate, Workman says.

Bill Chamberlain, assistant dean of the career center at Northwestern University School of Law, agrees that the program, for now, should appeal to 3Ls who still are unsure of their post-graduation job prospects. 

"To me it sounds like a pretty good deal...It makes the first six weeks of 3L year a little tough, because you're trying to do this and compete for a job while you're trying to do schoolwork and everything else," he says. "But, I think people can do it and, if you're a good third year, it makes sense."

Pearson and attorneys from the firm have visited college campuses to connect with students and discuss the program. The firm has been utilizing social media as a means of staying connected with law school students who may have more contact with other firms. Waller Lansden also has a Twitter feed dedicated to Schola2Juris and a Facebook page that's received 50,000 visits in the past year.

Additionally, videotaped conversations with firm attorneys, detailing a day in the life of a Waller Lansden associate, were posted on YouTube. "We needed a heightened visibility above and beyond our competitors that were going on campus," Pearson says.

Vanderbilt's Workman thinks that the firm's persistence in working with schools and reaching out to students via social media has been effective. "[Pearson is] doing a very good job of using methods of communication that young attorneys or future attorneys are using to get the word out," she says.

Whether this specific approach would work for other firms is a reasonable question. Pearson admits that Waller's program is specialized for the firms' particular needs, but she believes that the idea behind it is one other firms might be able to adapt for their own demands.

Chamberlain agrees that Waller Lansden's model can serve as a blueprint for other firms to refine and build on. 

Regardless of how this catches on with other firms, it is among the more innovative approaches to rethinking the student recruitment process that we have seen--particularly in terms of benefiting 3Ls--and it is one we will follow closely as it progresses.

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This program likely makes a lot of sense for Waller Lansden, and it will be interesting to see if other firms find ways to narrow the time gap between making commitments and hiring. No other industry makes commitments so far out.

Like all firms, Waller Lansden has its place in the pecking order. It is a good, well respected firm, but not a nationally prominent and not the dominant firm in its smaller city home market (although it is in the group of upper tier Nashville firms).

I would bet that, when the market for associates was hot, they extended offers to 2Ls, locking themselves in, only to see the students shop around for an even better deal. That's something all firms have to contend with, but I bet the issue was just a tad more chronic given Waller Lansden's positioning.

They avoid that problem now. When they make an offer, they can get a commitment. They will lose some top prospects to the national firms, but that was always going to happen. Now, at least, they aren't investing in a long courtship before they get jilted. Historically, and especially in this economy, they are still a very attractive place to land for most law students, and should be able to fill fill their slots with very good candidates.

Would this same model work for Kirkland or Latham, or other firms more persistently and broadly in competition for the very top prospects from the top national schools? Would it work for a smaller market firm that, unlike Waller, isn't quite so well respected in its home market? That will be interesting to see.

What Walter Landsden is attempting is an interesting model. What remains to be soon however is does Walter Landsden have its pick of the very best of each law school's class? After all, most of the top law students committed to and accepted full time jobs by the start of their 3rd years. Who does that leave to participate in a 3L bootcamp recruitment program? Those without job offers it would seem to follow. The business right now is in working with IPOs, and private company M&A deals:
http://www.privco.com/knowledge-bank/private-company-mergers-and-acquisitions
Can 2nd and 3rd tier law students handle such work, keep VC and private equity firm and other financial sponsor clients happy?

This program won first place at the Legal Marketing Association's Annual Your Honor Awards Ceremony which recognizes excellence in Legal Marketing: http://www.legalmarketing.org/Awards/YOURHONORAWARDS/2011YourHonorAwards/2011YHAAwardWinners/Recruiting/tabid/1740/Default.aspx#Top

Beware of this firm. They take about 3 months to reimburse you for interview expenses. Any firm that takes 3 months and 2 reminders to reimburse under $600, well, it makes you wonder how financially sound they are.

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