The Inside Scoop on Law Firm Summer Associate Programs

HierarchyWhat, you might reasonably ask, qualifies me to talk about law firm summer associate programs? Glad you asked. Basically, I made a hobby out of being a summer associate. I managed to summer at three different firms, in three cities and two countries, over three summers, for a combined total of something absurd like 30 weeks. Hey, it’s not a bad gig! Most of the time.

Why Do Law Firms Have Summer Associates?

BigLaw is an odd beast. To understand the summer associate program, it’s helpful to understand the basic structure of a large law firm:

  • A relatively small percentage of the firm is made up of equity partners. These partners share the profits of the firm each year and usually get to vote on major decisions.
  • Many firms have a second tier of partners, non-equity partners. Although called partners, non-equity partners are salaried and don’t share in the profits of the firm. They do, however, generally get a vote. The ranks of non-equity partners have grown in recent years at many firms, either because existing equity partners were de-equitized, or because fewer associates and non-equity partners were promoted to equity partner. (At some firms, equity partnership requires a stint in non-equity Purgatory on the way to partnership Heaven.)
  • Finally, firms have associates, salaried attorneys who have no say in running the firm. Each associate is a member of a “class year,” based on their law school graduation year. Someone who’s just started at the firm, immediately after graduation, is a first year. Someone who graduated five years ago is a fifth year, etc.

In any large firm, there are a lot more first years than fifth years. Attrition is rapid, and upwards of 80% of new hires depart within five years.

To fill their first year slots, firms run summer associate programs. In theory, the firm you work for after your second year of law school will make you an offer to return as a full-time associate after you graduate. If you accept, you’ll become a first year at that firm.

Law firms run summer associate programs to ensure they have a steady pipeline of first-year lawyers. One might reasonably question whether it makes sense to predict how many first years you’ll need at least two years in advance, but there’s probably some benefit in getting law students into the system early. Otherwise, they might have time to explore their other options.

What Do Summer Associates Do?

A summer associate position is an extended job interview. You can expect to do the sort of work a first year might do, without the really boring parts like document review. The expressed goal of the firm is to let you get a taste of what it would be like to work there. Their real goal is a bit different – it’s to convince you that this firm is a reasonable place to work, which generally requires shielding you from the whole truth.

So, most summers do a bit of “real” work (carefully filtered to be relatively interesting and substantive), and spend a lot of time eating out and going to parties and sporting events. If you pay attention, you can learn a lot about a firm’s culture as a summer associate, but it’s easy to get distracted when there are three social events every week, not counting summer lunches, where you’ll be wined and dined at fancy restaurants multiple times a week.

Assuming you want an offer, your job is to appear unoffensive for the entirety of the summer. If someone asks you to do a task, you show up in their office with a notepad, eager for instructions. You nod and smile through interminable cocktail parties, discussing your goals with bored partners who will never learn your name. In exchange for being reasonably personable and engaging in no major scandals, you’re rewarded with $3,000+ per week, and the offer to come back and do it all again as an associate, minus the entertainment and fancy lunches.

How Do I Get a Summer Associate Position?

You can take several different paths to summer associate nirvana:

  • go to a top law school
  • do very well your first year at a less prestigious school, preferably one near a major city
  • be the child of a very well-connected individual, preferably one who hires BigLaw partners
  • send out hundreds of applications and hope lightening strikes

Realistically, your best shot at getting a summer associate position at a law firm is through on campus interviewing between your first and second years of school. If that doesn’t work out, mail merge is your new best friend.

What’s the Downside?

Being a summer associate can be great. You’re paid well, people try to be nice to you, and it’s interesting to explore what life is really like in a law firm.

Things don’t always work out, however.

  1. Some law firms are so batshit insane that they can’t hold it together, even for the ten weeks their summers are in residence. Despite their best efforts, you get a glimpse into the abyss, and you see what life is really like there. Trust me, it’s not pretty, and it can result in a miserable summer.
  2. Even if your summer experience is fine, you get an offer, and you’re willing to return, you could find your plans waylaid by economic factors beyond your control. When the economy really tanked in 2008, law firms were faced with an overabundance of new lawyers, who’d been hired when times were flush. Rather than taking a hit to their profits-per-partner stats, many firms opted to “defer” their new attorneys for a year or more. Some offered stipends, some helped with alternative job placements, and some didn’t do much of anything. In the end, many of these deferred lawyers were brought on by the firms that promised them jobs, but don’t kid yourself – if it’s in the partners’ best interest, summer associates who’ve accepted offers become expendable pretty fast.
  3. Finally, and certainly not of least concern, is the fact that taking a summer associate position might prevent you from doing what you came to law school to do. If you’re in a position to work as a summer associate at a large law firm, there’s going to be enormous pressure on you to do it. “Just try it out! You don’t have to go back.” Be very wary of this logic. Once you’re in the system, it’s a lot harder to break free. BigLaw is like heroin – if you know it’s not for you, don’t take the first hit or you might get hooked.

Master OCI and Get the Job You Want

Read on to get the information you need to get the summer associate position you want:

Return to Summer Jobs 101.

Have questions about law firm summer associate programs? Leave them in the comments!

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  1. Hi,

    I am a 2L working really hard to improve grades (drastically) to get a summer job, what can I do to make this happen? It doesn’t have to be a BigLaw gig, but I would like it to be paid and hopefully lead to career post graduation. My resume reads: Summer Intern for federal district judge and 5 years of litigation experience.

    Any advice?

    Thanks so much!

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