Originally published on April 19, 2010 in our free BigLaw newsletter.We perform certain rituals in life without questioning why or thinking about how they came about. Exhibit A — summer associate programs. From an outsider's perspective, summer programs seem nonsensical. Law firms hire untested law students and then shower them with cash and other perks for doing basically nothing. Over the past few years, firms have toned down summer programs from their gluttonous peak in the early 2000s, but it's time to change them wholesale … or perhaps even let them go.
The Rationales for Summer Associate Programs Fail the Laugh Test
Depending on who you believe, summer associate programs originated for one of two reasons.
Law firms instituted summer programs to evaluate law students before they joined on a full-time basis. But this explanation doesn't square with the fact that until recently the full-time offer rate was almost always 100% regardless of performance. Summering law students just had to avoid doing something epically stupid like jumping naked into the Hudson River.
Another explanation suggests that the programs were originally developed to mentor and groom budding attorneys for practice. But if grooming summer associates for real life practice was truly the goal, why have firms typically given summer associates fluffy make-work assignments instead of staffing them on real deals and cases? And unless you count senior associates offering advice on which cut to order for lunch at the local steakhouse, summers don't receive much mentoring from their firms either.
And So Do the Justifications for Their Excesses
Even if summer associate programs were implemented with noble intentions, it doesn't explain why the programs became — and to a large extent remain — such hedonistic bacchanals. Accordingly, two justifications emerged to explain the glut.
The first is that spoiling summers is necessary marketing and a small price to pay for attracting top talent. The reasoning goes that top law students, ostensibly in receipt of multiple summer offers but unable to distinguish among the firms, are more likely to summer at firms that ply them with expensive meals, theater tickets and rivers of top-shelf alcohol. But any top law student worth his or her salt chooses firms based on prestige, practice areas, and personality fit, not gifts.
The second justification is that summer excess signals to clients that the firms are healthy, wealthy, and able to woo the best law students. But again, the reality is that clients only care about summer associates in so far as they won't tolerate being billed for their time.
Time for a New Breed Of Summer Programs
Having gutted the rationales for summer associate programs, should law firms continue these programs? Yes, but only if they're transformed into apprenticeships that provide real job training.
Law students are hyper aware that even if they receive offers to join firms for the summer, those offers may not translate into jobs after graduation. And even if they do receive full-time offers, once they join, their job security is tenuous. This "rank-and-yank" mentality among large law firms is the new normal.
Law students want summer programs that build their practical skills so that in the event that they don't receive offers, they can use those skills to secure jobs elsewhere. It also benefits firms to implement training programs that actually prepare students to hit the ground running once they return after graduation.
Law firms don't have to eliminate all the perks of the summer associate program as long as they remember that teaching a man or woman to fish is more valuable than treating them to the escolar at Le Bernardin.
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