Summer Associate Decision Time

by Nicole Weber | September 27, 2013

It’s that time of year when 2Ls who are lucky enough to have multiple offers for summer associate positions must make their big decision. If you have yet to accept an offer, you are likely wrestling with some serious questions that will not only shape your upcoming summer, but the rest of your career. It is extremely important to have a positive summer experience during which you get to know your future colleagues, try your hand at some serious legal work, and hopefully, secure yourself an offer of full-time employment. It takes two to tango in this respect—the onus is on summer associates to make the most of their experience, but firms must lay the groundwork for that to happen.

What makes a great summer associate program?

In this year’s Vault Associate Survey we asked associates to rate their firm’s summer program in two respects. First, associates were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the extent to which they agreed with the statement that the firm’s program “prepared me well for life as an attorney.”  Next, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with the statement that “the summer program was fun.” The scores provided by associates in their first through third years were then tabulated to produce Vault’s rankings for Summer Associate Program that Best Prepares for Practice (“Best Preparation”), Most Fun Summer Associate Program, and Best Overall Summer Associate Program (an average of the scores for the two categories). Attorneys were also invited to comment on the firm’s summer program.

Comments from associates who raved about their firm’s programs reveal some of the secret ingredients of a first rate summer associate experience. Whether or not you have offers from these particular firms, the comments we received offer advice about what to look for in a summer associate program, and what you might expect when you report to work in May.

Venable LLP’s summer program claimed the #1 spot in both the Best Overall and Best Preparation categories. Venable’s program, which associates described as “amazing” and “excellent,” “dedicates time and energy to integrating the summer associates into substantive work projects, while making sure that everyone has a good time.” The effect of this personal touch is that “each summer feels cared about and then in turn cares about the next class.” Enthusiasm and participation from attorneys across the firm—not just the hiring partners and recruiting department—makes summers feel welcome. One associate commented: “Leaders of the summer associate program do a great job of rounding up all attorneys at the firm and encouraging them to identify at least one project, if not more, to engage in with a summer associate. Definitely a firm-wide effort.” The ability to try out different types of work is also a crucial feature: “I did substantive legal work from day one and built several relationships that continue to shape my life as a junior associate. I was able to experience a variety of practice areas, and came away with a firm idea of the work I wanted to do.”  Certainly, hands-on exposure to multiple practice areas will help you make a well-informed choice at summer’s end about what group you want to join. But what about fun? At Venable, “summer events were well-planned, well-spaced and enjoyable, but not so much as to be overkill.” Because wining and dining is well and good, but in this tough economy, 2Ls are more likely to be focused on getting their work done rather than partying it up several nights a week on the firm’s dime. 

Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP’s summer program claimed the #3 spot for Best Overall and was ranked #2 for Best Preparation. Unanimously, associates reported that the summer at Cravath is a rehearsal for the real deal: “They don't sugar-coat the experience, aside from the fancy lunches.” As one attorney articulated, “At Cravath, summer associates should be prepared to work harder than at other firms. [They] get a real experience of what it is like to be a full-time associate here.” Associates appreciated the “great preview” of Cravath life due to the fact that “[t]here are no ‘fake’ assignment and one is treated like a junior associate,” for better or for worse. So what exactly does it mean to be treated like a regular Cravath associate? One lawyer fondly recalled the summer as follows: “I was billing 90 hour weeks. Honestly, I'm grateful, as I knew exactly what I was getting myself into and I had amazing experience. It wasn't ‘fun’ but it was what I needed.” Another associate was “assigned to a deal team and acted as the junior associate until I left. Not as much fun as my friends had elsewhere, but there were plenty of social events and I knew exactly what to expect when I started in the fall two years later.” Cravath lawyers would not trade the firm’s rigorous program for something more cushy; it “probably makes for less interesting discussions about boondoggles during 3L, but it's honest and in the end, the best thing for summers.”

Similarly, Bingham McCutchen LLP’s highly ranked summer program (#5 Best Overall, #4 Best Preparation) focuses on providing 2Ls with an authentic foray into associate life. “Summers participate in a work flow system similar to what they'll experience as junior associates and get work that is very realistic in terms of amount and substantive level.” Associates appreciate the “high quality work” they received as summers, which “can be intense, but it prepares you for the rigors of private practice and is very rewarding.”  As for fun, “There are still a few activities, but the very small summer associate classes of recent years make it difficult to replicate the heyday of summer classes gone by.”

Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP’s summer program (#8 Best Overall, #5 Most Fun, #24 Best Preparation) aims to achieve more harmony between work and play. One associate commented, “Gibson's summer program, unlike many others, actually is a lot of work. I bill a lot more and have a lot less fun now than I did as a summer, but I think the summer is a solid intro to firm culture and I got to see (but not experience) the life I would have as a junior associate.” Another stated that the program “had a nice balance of work and fun. Although I did not have the work level, the stress was very much there, and I felt like I was really a part of the firm and the teams I worked with.” In the end, “nothing prepares you for actually being an associate,” so Gibson attorneys appreciated the chance to enjoy summer activities and delay the onset of reality just a little longer.

What about all the fancy dinners and karaoke parties?

While working hard is important, there’s nothing wrong with a summer program that is heavy on the fun. And there’s always this consolation, aptly stated by a former summer associate from a firm that shall remain nameless: “The summer program borderline conceals real life at the firm on the one hand, but also helps you cope with it since you now have so many friends in the same boat with you when things get bad after the summer's over.”  The list below highlights some of the top-ranked firms for Most Fun Summer Associate Program, as well as comments from junior associates who spent their summers at those firms:

Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P.(Summer Associate Program Rankings: #2 Most Fun, #8 Best Overall)

  • “Our firm's summer associate program is geared toward making sure that summer associates meet attorneys throughout the firm in different divisions and get a sense of whether they would fit in well at the firm. Summer associates select their own projects and are encouraged to experiment with different types of work.”
  • “Our firm's summer program is not meant to simulate what actual life as an attorney will be like. People have their whole careers to experience that. Plus, most law students are aware of the time and energy that goes into being a lawyer, particularly at a large firm. Our summer program focuses more on exposing the summer associates to different practice areas and as many people in the firm as possible. We want summer associates to get a feel for the firm culture and the work we do.”         

Irell & Manella LLP (Summer Associate Program Rankings: #3 Most Fun, #10 Best Overall)

  • “Unparalleled. Budget per person per event, with no limit to the number of events associates or summer associates may participate in. Almost anything you could want to do is a possible summer event—from concerts to camping trips, cooking classes to catamarans.”
  • “Summer program not tailored toward replicating life as an associate, but is lots of fun (lots of dinners, events, trips, etc.). Plenty of opportunities for substantive work.”
  • “Irell simply has the best (and most fun) summer program in the country. Good experience, with very little stress and tons of very fun social activities (both organized and more informal).”

Linklaters LLP (Summer Associate Program Rankings: #6 Most Fun, #23 Best Overall)

  • “Summers sit with two groups within the firm, and can split their summers between New York, Hong Kong, and London. Midsummer retreat in London for the entire class and weekly social events. Emphasis on meeting other people at the firm.”
  • “The summer program is amazing. There are a myriad of fun events, the associates and partners you meet are all very personable and fun as well. And they fly us all out to London for a week long retreat, which they completely arrange. The retreat was particularly great because you really get a sense of what the firm is all about and just what it means to be a part of THE leading global law firm. You also get to meet the summers from the Hong Kong and London office which helps you feel like a cohesive group.”

Ropes & Gray(Summer Associate Program Rankings: #7 Most Fun, #31 Best Overall)

  • “The goal of the program is to allow you to connect to your classmates during the summer so you will have friends/colleagues when you enter the firm. This goal may sound fluffy, but it's been hugely helpful to have a friend in, for example, the Tax Group who I can call and bounce questions off of.”
  • “The summer program was an excellent opportunity to get to know your future colleagues. I still maintain connections through the program. It was also a real work experience. I got to work closely with some partners and learned a great deal . . . all the events and socializing can't capture the day to day life of an associate, however.”
  • “I did not receive a lot of work or responsibility over the summer. The focus of our summer program is to acquaint us with the firm and our future colleagues, and I very much appreciated that.”

Long gone are the days of bacchanialan law firm summers, but that doesn’t mean you will have zero fun. Firms still want to impress 2Ls in the hopes that they will join their future ranks. But as the comments above indicate, each firm has its own approach when it comes to social events, integrating summers into associate life, and providing associates with assignments that mirror what they would actually do as a junior attorney. At certain firms, a research memo that a junior associate would be expected to produce in two days might be assigned to a summer associate with a deadline of two weeks. At others, a summer associate might be assigned to a deal team and be expected to burn the midnight oil along with everyone else.   

Which program is right for me?

If you have yet to make your decision about which offer to accept, consider your top priorities. Don’t be shy about asking pointed questions on second look visits or over email with your contacts at the firm. Not sure BigLaw is for you? You may want to choose a program that accurately mirrors associate life so that you can make an informed decision later on. 100% sure you will be spending at least a couple years in BigLaw? Nothing wrong with enjoying yourself at a place that makes a grand effort to wine and dine its summer class while you still have the opportunity.

To see the full list of Vault’s Summer Associate rankings, click here

Read More:

The 10 Most Fun Law Firms for Summer Associates

Filed Under: Job Search | Law


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