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September 7, 2011 6:38 PM

2011 Summers Worked Hard—And Have the Job Offers to Show For It

Posted by Sara Randazzo

Summer associate class sizes may not be back to their lavish pre-recession levels, but one element of the law firm recruiting process appears to have returned in full force: the rate at which summer associates eligible to receive offers of full-time employment are getting them.

An Am Law Daily survey of 17 national firms that employed at least 20 second-year law students this summer found an average offer rate of 97 percent, up from the 95 percent rate at which the same firms extended job offers to eligible students last year. Among those firms, that translates to an average of 62 students per firm getting offers this year, up from 47 in 2010.

Those offer rates signal a sharp turnaround from the dark days of 2009, when, according to the National Association of Law Placement, the overall rate for summer associates plummeted to a record low of 69.3 percent—a product of law firms locking in large summer classes before the economy tumbled in the fall of 2008. NALP, which reported an 87.4 percent offer rate for 2010, won't have a final 2011 figure until spring 2012.

(Memories of 2009's dismal offer rates could help explain why just 85 percent of 2L summer associates who answered The American Lawyer's Summer Associates Survey this year said they had already received or expected to receive an offer.)

Several hiring partners say their firms approached the season intending to make offers to all of this year's eligible summers—and some did just that.

Five of the firms surveyed asked 100 percent of their second-year students to join them full-time upon graduation: Bingham McCutchen (31 2Ls); Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (92); Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson (43); Mayer Brown (24); and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett (100).

Several other firms matched or exceeded the 97 percent average, including O'Melveny & Myers (which offered jobs to 67 of 68, or 99 percent, of its 2Ls) Goodwin Procter (41 of 42; 98 percent); Kirkland & Ellis (122 of 124; 98 percent); Cooley (36 of 37; 97 percent, with one decision pending as of Wednesday); and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher (105 of 108; 97 percent).

The balance of the firms surveyed reported offer rates in the low-to-mid 90s range: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld (offers made to 48 of 50, or 96 percent, of its summers); Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr (88 of 92; 96 percent); Alston & Bird (52 of 55; 95 percent); Vinson & Elkins (83 of 88; 94 percent) Baker Botts (58 of 63; 92 percent); Crowell & Moring (19 of 21; 91 percent); and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe (47 of 52; 90 percent).

As law firm recruiters tell it, members of the Class of 2011 earned those offers by throwing themselves into their summer jobs so fully that they had to be told to ease up and enjoy the latest round of wine tours, happy hours, boat cruises, and other perks of the season. 

"People came in wanting to work, which is a shift," says Stephen Venuto, Orrick's firmwide head of on-campus recruiting. "Students' primary goal three or four years ago was to ensure they had a terrific social experience. They short-changed themselves a little." (Venuto says Orrick was in a position to extend offers to all 52 of its summers, but determined that not every member of this year's class was a perfect fit with the firm.) 

Alston & Bird hiring partner Liz Price also noticed a sturdier work ethic among this year's class.

"I think you definitely have a group of very mature, focused summer associates who wanted to work hard, wanted to do work that was meaningful and relevant, but also wanted to feel connected to the firm and the culture," Price says. "It was exactly what we always hope to get from a summer program."

As encouraging as those offer rates may be to law students looking to land summer associate spots in 2012, NALP Executive Director James Leipold cautions against getting too giddy about law firm job prospects.

"It's not back to the good old days," Leipold says bluntly. He notes that summer class sizes may have inched up this year—and appear to be on track to do so again next year—but are still significantly smaller than they were in the halcyon pre-recession days and may never again reach those levels.

The reluctance of clients to pay to train new associates is one factor keeping class sizes down, Leipold says. If clients won't pay, he explains, classes of 200 or 300 become too much of a burden. Instead, firms are bringing in smaller groups and offering them a mix of client work, training, simulated matters, and mini-MBA programs—all with the idea of making a long-term investing in talent. At the same time, Leipold says, firms no longer expect, or want, the high levels of attrition traditionally seen among new associate classes.

"I just think they're recruiting groups of students more carefully—students they want to keep for the long haul," he says.

For students itching to work at a law firm who don't make it into traditional summer classes, there are options emerging beyond that model. Orrick, Wilmer, and McDermott, Will & Emery are among the firms that have begun to hire lawyers to work on a non-partner track basis.

Venuto says Orrick typically hires attorneys it calls "career associates"—many of whom work in the firm's Wheeling, West Virginia office—directly out of law school. This year the firm also experimented with a separate summer program for those associates

Leipold doubts summer programs that mix partner-track and career-track associates will ever exist. "The dynamic of that in terms of egos and feelings is probably too hard." Meanwhile, he says, it's encouraging to hear that those who went the traditional summer route this year earned their keep. 

"We heard things like, 'Students showed up ready to work. They were taking it seriously. Nobody had expectations it would be a big party,'" he says. "That's as it should be. These kids went through the worst of the recession, they saw what the classes ahead of them went through. It wasn't a class with a big sense of entitlement."

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So the class 2010 was somehow not ready to work and simply had no idea what the current market dynamic was during the 09 summer? We just didn't work as hard, please. I'm so sick of this spin doctor crap. Firms knew what size summer program they wanted and hired accordingly, as opposed to when the screwed up in 08 hiring for the 09 summer. This article is insulting.

Can someone please tell me why it was never like this before? Summer Associates should be expected to work hard. Partners and Senior Associates know that these lawyers-to-be will be working 90 hours a week. To see if they can really hack it, they shouldn't be wined and dined, they should be worked incessantly. I can't understand why it has never been that way in the first place.

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