The Talent

September 29, 2011 7:35 PM

The American Lawyer 2011 Summer Associates Survey: Rational Exuberance?

Posted by Sara Randazzo

Law students who spent the past summer working as associates at some of the nation's largest firms went into their jobs knowing the negative reputation that life at such firms can have. They ended the season believing that reputation isn't deserved—at least not where they worked.

That's one of the conclusions to be drawn from The American Lawyer’s annual Summer Associates Survey, which polled 3,656 students at 138 law firms. Among the survey's other main findings: This year's summers were largely satisfied with the substantive quality of the work they were assigned, annoyed that they didn't have job offers in hand by the time they returned to school, and—in a possibly shameless display of enthusiasmeager to work for a longer stretch of the summer than the eight or ten weeks that most firms' programs typically run. 

Even accounting for a few minor complaints, summer associates walked away from their experience with a sense that life is better at the firms where they worked than it is at competing firms.

The Charts:

National Rankings
City Results: Interactive Map

As a Paul Hastings summer associate in Washington, D.C., wrote in response to one of the survey's open-ended questions: "I was a little nervous that attorneys at a big law firm would have the personality you might expect out of Big Law but every single person I have met is down to earth, friendly, and genuinely interested in making the summers feel like they are part of the family."

A pair of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius summers echoed that sentiment. "The atmosphere was actually quite relaxed compared to stereotypes of large Am law top 20 firms," wrote an associate assigned to the firm’s Palo Alto office. Wrote a second, this one in the firm's Philadelphia headquarters: "Attorneys like their jobs."

A student who spent the summer working in Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman's Washington, D.C., office joined the chorus: "The people are very friendly and most of the big-firm horror stories don't seem to apply to this firm."

The unbridled enthusiasm on display this year is a departure from the dour mood evident among summers over the past two years, when fears over the state of the economy had students panicking and law firm hiring partners extending job offers at historically low rates.

At the same time the exuberance contrasts sharply with the feelings of midlevel associates at many of the same firms, whose satisfaction with their jobs—as reflected in The American Lawyer's most recent Associates Survey—fell to its lowest level since 2004.

It's one thing, of course, to bill an average of 2,037 hours a year—as midlevels answering this year's Associates Survey said they expect to do in 2010—while striving to make partner and worrying about an average student loan balance of nearly $58,000. It's another altogether to eat well, play hard, and file a brief or two in between on the same six-figure (albeit pro-rated) salary as first-year associates.

"This has been the best summer of my life," gushed one Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison associate in New York in a typical comment culled from the responses to the survey's open-ended questions.

When it came to doling out numeric ratings to their would-be future employers, the summer associates who took the Am Law survey were equally positive. The 108 firms that received a ranking notched an average score—based on nine questions ranked on a scale of one to five—of 4.622. No firm's average fell below a 4. (For more on how we arrived at the results, see the methodology, in box at left.)  

Which firm fared the best this year? That distinction goes to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which crept to the top of the rankings (from number 3) last year with a near perfect 4.934 based on 105 responses. Rounding out the survey's top five: Dickstein Shapiro at number 2 (up from number 11 last year), with a score of 4.920; Bingham McCutchen at number 3 (down from number 2) with a 4.913 score; Foley Hoag at number 4 with 4.898; and Katten Muchin Rosenman and Morgan, Lewis tied at number 5 with the same 4.892 score. (Morgan, Lewis, which didn't host a summer class in 2010, did not appear in last year's rankings. Katten and Foley, which did host classes, were also absent from the rankings.)

Students who spent the summer at top-ranked Gibson, Dunn said they were impressed with how well the firm lived up to the way it portrayed itself during the interview process, how friendly and helpful its attorneys were, and the quality of work that the firm handles.

The firm with the least satisfied summers? Chadbourne & Parke. Even as the bottom-ranked firm, though, Chadbourne received a respectable 4.142 score, down slightly from the 4.267 it received in 2010. Helping drive down Chadbourne’s final rating were scores that dipped below 4 on a few key questions, including satisfaction with the amount of training and guidance, partners' interactions with summers, how well the firm communicated its goals and expectations, and how accurately the firm portrayed itself during the interview process. The level of competitiveness at Chadbourne, rated at 2.42 out of 5, was also slightly higher than the surveywide average of 1.79. (A Chadbourne spokesman declined to comment on the survey results.)

Other firms placing near the bottom of the list included Bracewell & Giuliani at 4.143; Perkins Coie at 4.271; Wiley Rein at 4.289; and Irell & Manella at 4.302.

"We are heartened that our summer associates gave us very positive feedback in a number of areas, and that our summer associates as a whole had a great experience at the firm," a Wiley Rein spokeswoman said via e-mail, noting that one-third of the firm's summers did not respond to the survey. "We think we have a very good program and obviously we appreciate all forms of feedback and will work to make sure that future summer associates continue to have a positive experience with us." (Bracewell & Giuliani, Perkins Coie, and Irell & Manella did not respond to requests for comment.)

One concern prevalent during the past few years—whether an associate stint would translate into an offer of full-time employment—seemed to linger in the minds of many of this year's summers. On a scale of 1 to 5—with 1 being the most worried—this year's class recorded an average anxiety level of 3.89, up from last year's 3.68.  

If they don't already know it, this year's summers have little reason to worry. A separate survey of 17 firms—virtually all of whom participated in the Summer Associates Survey—conducted in September by The Am Law Daily found an average offer rate of 97 percent, up slightly from the 95 percent rate at which the same firms extended offers to eligible students last year.

Still, just 85 percent of second-year summer associates who answered the Summer Associates Survey said they had already received or expected to receive an offer as of early August. Many also complained about not knowing when they would receive an offer, an uncertainty that caused some to do on-campus interviews in the fall as a back-up plan.

A minority of summer associates who took the survey appeared to understand that should those offers come though, life at big law firms might not be all smiles in the hallway and invitations to leave early. A Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman associate in New York, for instance, seemed to think the summer season was a bit of a smoke screen: "The social events are great, but I think they obscure what life is actually like for 'real' employees."

This year, those events included U2 concerts, trips to the Tony Awards, impressionist painting classes, Segway tours, rafting trips, and trapeze lessons, among many others. Firmwide retreats, which some firms limited during the recession to save on travel costs, seemed to be back in full force—and a hit among the summer associates.

"The opening weekend at Seascape was incredible," wrote a Cooley associate from San Francisco about a retreat that brought together summers from around the country at a Northern California beach resort. Added a Palo Alto summer: "It's a truly social event which takes the edge off."

Many of the students hailed the social events as the high point of their season—satisfaction with such events scored a 4.50 overall—while others complained about preferring less time to drink and more substantive work assignments.

In between ping-pong tournaments and cooking school, the summers did seem to earn their keep. One Munger, Tolles & Olson summer associate in Los Angeles said in an interview that class members engaged in few drunken antics and took their work seriously instead.

"The attitude now is that we're very grateful for the fact we have a firm job," he said. "People were going to be very careful this summer to be very diligent, very on top of their assignments."

Some of those assignments included writing memos, conducting research, heading up pro bono projects, getting involved with depositions, and working on M&A deals. A few summers even said they pulled all-nighters, with minimal complaining.

One Latham & Watkins associate in San Francisco detailed how a group of summers worked on a massive research project to mitigate bad press for a client served with a high-profile lawsuit. After a week of working well into the night, the summer associate wrote, the attorneys took the group out to dinner as a thank you and told them to scale back their hours. "It was a great example of even though we had to work hard, Latham was so respectful about our time, and the supervisors were great," the summer wrote.

In the real world of associate life, when bonuses—and the firm’s profits—depend on the number of billable hours worked, the same courtesies may not apply.

Some summers reported hearing about trouble getting clients to pay for their work, though the vast majority who answered a survey question on the subject replied that they weren't made aware of any problems. Others said some clients actually seemed more interested in using summers because they are cheaper than regular associates.

One summer at an elite New York firm wasn't aware of any such problems, but did know "the partners have been active in preventing the clients from knowing that we are working on their projects."

When asked for improvements their firms could make for next year, many proposed giving summer associates more exposure to practice groups they are interested in and allowing them to rotate through more groups to get a taste for the variety of potential specialties.

"[Tell] incoming summers that ranking practice groups presummer determines who your mentors will be," suggested one Dechert summer in New York.

Many others cited a lack of diversity, though those complaints weren't reflected in the numbers. On the whole, summer associates rated the diversity of their own summer class at 4.09 but gave their firms an average score of 4.50 on whether or not they make a sincere effort to diversify in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity.

With the seasons changing  and the new law school year in full swing, the summer associates seem to have much to reflect upon. For one Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom summer in D.C., the meaning of life at a law firm is clear: "It's the American Dream: work hard and work smart and you will succeed."

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