Even under the duress of the downturn, this year's summer hires were fairly forgiving graders. The average overall score this year was 4.518 (based on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest) -- virtually the same as last year's 4.541. Even our bottom-ranking firm -- Minneapolis' Faegre & Benson -- turned in a worthy-enough 4.031 score. (Faegre spokesman Tom Schierholz declined to comment on the firm's performance this year.)
As in previous years, this year's two top firms scored perfect or near-perfect scores in all key categories, including the level of training and guidance they offered summer hires and the number of substantive matters they meted out.
"The assignments were intellectually challenging, complex, and stimulating," wrote one Cozen summer clerk. "A great place to work," agreed another. "One of the rare things in life that are as good or better than expected."
Unlike many firms, Cozen has been in growth mode, and recently acquired 85 lawyers from Philadelphia's now-defunct Wolf Block. Thus, it not only bucked the industry trend and continued its full ten-week summer program, it also told clerks up front that they could all count on getting job offers as long as they performed well. (As of early September, Cozen was still finalizing its summer offers, according to summer program director Brucker.)
The same was true at second-ranking Nutter McClennen, which also stuck to its traditional ten-week program. And, according to managing partner Michael Mooney, the firm expects to hire eight of ten clerks from its 2009 summer class -- nearly the same percentage as last year. While Nutter's transactions group has been slow, other practice areas have helped pick up the slack. "Litigation, IP, and trusts and estates have been perking along," Mooney says.
By contrast, many firms haven't managed to keep busy. Hence, the dramatic rise since last year in the percentage of summer clerks not counting on receiving job offers. Many clerks seem to be coping with the current job market by trying to figure out the most marketable career paths: Roughly 53 percent of respondents said they hoped to be litigators, up from 45 percent last year. The number of would-be bankruptcy specialists was double that of last year -- rising to 8 percent.
But even those soon-to-be grads who are sharpening their focus will face a fiercely competitive market. And with nearly three-quarters of survey respondents saying that they're counting on big-firm salaries to pay off law school debts, it's no wonder that many clerks spent much of the summer obsessing over firms' hiring plans.
Many expressed frustration about not getting what they considered to be straight answers about what was going on. "We are all incredibly worried about offers, and they have made no effort whatsoever to even inform us that they are aware how worried we are, let alone tell us what the plan is (even if they were just to say, 'We haven't figured it out')," wrote one clerk at New York's Schulte Roth & Zabel. "Essentially, it's a giant elephant in the room that the powers-that-be simply refuse to acknowledge." (Schulte Roth declined to comment on this year's survey results.)
A Shearman & Sterling intern echoed that thought. "Give us some hint about whether or not offers will be made," this associate wrote. "It's deeply frustrating and very distracting to be left in the dark, and we spend a great deal of time discussing any hints we can pick up on." (A Shearman spokeswoman said the firm wound up making offers to nearly all of its 61 summers.)
The 2009 summer experience wasn't all darkness and despair. For many clerks, the chance to tackle such challenging projects as preparing asylum petitions for immigrants or an amicus brief for the U.S. Supreme Court provided a highly positive distraction from job offer-related angst.
And firms also did their best to keep summer hires diverted with a healthy mix of social activities that included river-rafting, race-car driving, mechanical bull-riding, moonlight kayaking, target-shooting, bowling, and even polka-dancing.
Still, compared to years past, the summer class of 2009 generally had to settle for a more limited and far less over-the-top range of outings, meals, and firm functions -- and some clerks resented the economizing.
"There's no need to have a social event if the firm doesn't want to pay for all costs associated with it or wants to cut costs in indiscreet ways," griped an intern at Chicago's Mayer Brown.
"If necessary, lower the cap on per-lunch spending," wrote a clerk at New York's Cravath, Swaine & Moore, referring to a one-associate-lunch-per-week rule. "This rule has severely limited associate/summer interaction."
Not all firms scrimped. In fact, at some, summer hires found the meals far too rich and the number of firm functions overwhelming.
"Please don't take us out for any more New American cuisine," wrote a clerk at New York's Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. "Just because it's expensive and drenched in butter doesn't make it taste good."
"Less fancy lunches!" wrote a Steptoe & Johnson intern. "I loved getting to know the other attorneys, but I hated eating that much at noon every day! Pizza or Chinese food would have been fine with me!"
A few of this year's summer hires simply couldn't fathom why firms would even bother bankrolling sumptuous meals and affairs. At least one guilt-ridden Ropes & Gray clerk actually worried that she and her peers were helping to waste money that should have been better spent. "We really don't need BlackBerrys, free lunches every day, or an event every week," she wrote. "If cutting back on these perks would help one more associate get hired or decrease the need for [deferrals], I would rather have our class start bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
The way things are going these days, getting in the habit of brown-bagging it may not be a bad idea.
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