The Wonderful World of Summer Work

by | March 10, 2009

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Summer programs for law students, especially those at the most high-flying firms, have developed a reputation (not necessarily unfounded) as nothing more than gilded recruiting tools. However, law firms and other sponsors of summer programs insist that their summer hires get much more out of the experience than memories of lavish lunches and Yankees games. Judging from our insiders' perspective, some programs more than others succeed in their objectives.

1. Seeing what it's really like

Most law firms claim that their summer programs give law students a sense of what life is like as a practicing attorney. Does that mean that summer associates around the country work the same hours as their full-time counterparts? Not exactly. One associate at Dallas-based Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld tells us flatly: "If they're here past six, we're kicking them out the office." At New York's Shearman & Sterling, another insider comments: "I thought it was real work when I was a summer, but it wasn't."

Only the rare firm prides itself on a tough, realistic summer regime. A notable example here is Washington DC's Williams & Connolly. "There's no coddling," a W&C insider tells us, adding : "People here pride themselves on not having a lavish summer program, and trying to get people to come based on the work, and not doing bullshit things like taking sailing trips or going on helicopter rides." Says that contact: "I think that summer associates come here knowing what they're getting into."

2. Getting a clue

Another important function of the summer program is to help budding lawyers determine where they might like to practice. Here firms seem to have more success, particularly given the easygoing assignments systems characterizing many summer programs. For example, at Washington D.C.'s Hogan & Hartson, insiders characterize the assignment system as "free form - summers can choose assignments from any practice area they wish." Hogan's summer associates even have an intranet page at their disposal, a sort of "who what where why when" service that lists assignments, as well as information on outings, activities, and city life. Finally, individuals with particular interests can opt for a two-week rotation in a particular department.

~Another Washington firm, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, also offers a "free form" assignment system. Before arriving at the firm, Wilmer summer associates rank their preferences of work assignments according to three categories: litigation, corporate, and regulatory. "The categories don't correspond exactly to formal groups of the firm," one contact tells us. "You're basically choosing based on what you're interested in." Each broad grouping has a partner and associate who coordinates assignments and will look for work for the summer associates. Additionally, insiders say that they will send the coordinators projects that a summer associate will find interesting. "We try to give them interesting work - we really wouldn't want to put a summer associate on a lengthy document production."

3. Learning the business

Summer programs also seek to give individuals what they very often don't get in law school: concrete lawyering skills. Here, results are mixed. A Shearman contact, for example, tells us: "I would never give a summer real work." At Hogan & Hartson, insiders indicate that work is largely research-oriented, although attorneys occasionally give more substantive projects, such as drafting briefs or attending a deposition. Finally, while firms may not hand out "real" work all that often, they almost universally allow their summers to take part in training. For instance, at Washington's Wilmer Cutler, our contacts tell us that summer associates have access to any formal training offered, notably a deposition workshop that usually takes place during the summer. Additionally, Wilmer's summer associates can expect a fair amount of interaction with partners. "In fact," one attorney notes, "partners have to give feedback, and they won't get out of it without recruiting people having something to say about it."

~4. Schmoozing

One essential aspect of the summer program, although not necessarily one bandied about in recruiting literature, is schmoozing. Summer associates have an excellent opportunity to get their names and faces on the radar screens of important partners or senior associates. At New York's Cravath, Swaine & Moore, this prime schmoozing opportunity can have an effect on the individual's entire career with the firm. Under Cravath's rotation system, full-time associates have very little input as to where they will work. However, we do hear that summer associates "will often end up working in the same group for their first rotation."

5. Getting a lay of the land

Summer programs can also help a candidate get a feel for a particular community. Here, public sector programs seem to offer more than their law firm counterparts. For example, summer hires working at the New York City Law Department, in addition to getting the chance to observe trials, can also visit "some of the sources of the city's lawsuits," including Staten Island's Fresh Kills landfill, and a tour of New York City's water supply infrastructure.

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