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Top 10 Reasons Why Getting a Summer Associate Job with a Large Law Firm is Crucial to Your Legal Career
by Harrison Barnes, Managing Director
There are, of course, people I have known who have gotten jobs in large law firms without being a summer associate first (Yale graduates who work in the State Department during the summer, attorneys who were federal law clerks for important judges after law school and a few other examples), but it is very rare. Generally, the qualifications of the people who are able to get positions in large law firms without being summer associates in a large law firm are extraordinary in some other respect.
For the most part, unless you get a job as a summer associate with a large law firm, you will have an extremely difficult time getting a position with a large law firm in the future.
Below are ten reasons why it is important to get a summer associate job with a large law firm:
1. Large Law Firms Want to Hire Proven Commodities. Large law firms want to hire people who are "proven" and who are likely to work out. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who simply do not have the skills to work in an office.
- They cannot get along with others,
- do not have the right work ethic,
- gossip too much,
- act inappropriately,
- do not take things seriously,
- are not likeable enough,
- or are not good with clients.
When you are successful as a summer associate, this shows future employers that you are likely to work out. Your odds of getting hired by a large law firm improve drastically.
If you do not get a summer associate position (and offer), then a law firm hiring you is taking a complete "shot in the dark" and is likely to be extremely nervous. Keep in mind that lots of people want to work in large law firms. In fact, many law firms receive thousands of applications a year. These law firms are much more likely to hire people who are "proven" and have meaningful experience in a large law firm rather than people who are not.
Depending on the economy, most summer associates end up getting positions with the law firms they work as summer associates in. This means that if you are able to get a summer associate job with that firm, your odds of getting a permanent offer from that firm are very good.
When a law student works at a big law firm in the summer and gets an offer, they also have the opportunity to get a job with another (more prestigious) law firm prior to graduation. For example, if you go to a school like the University of Michigan and:
- go to a less prestigious law firm like Dickinson Wright in Detroit (not the best law firm in Detroit by any measure) as a summer associate and get an offer, you can then potentially…
- get a job with a much more prestigious and respected law firm like (a) Honigman, Miller, (b) Foley & Lardner, or (c) Miller Canfield if you do well and secure an offer from Dickinson Wright (assuming your grades are good in your second and third years of law school).
Alternatively, you could potentially get a position with a large law firm in a city like Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York. You can actually move up in terms of the level of the firm you ultimately take a job with if you get an offer from a large law firm in the summer.
In addition, you can also interview with a variety of firms of roughly the same prestige level if you get a position with a large law firm in the summer.
My grades in my second year of law school were much better than in my first year. When I was interviewing for permanent associate jobs in my third year of law school, I got interviews with much better employers than I did after my first year. However, if I had not been a summer associate in a major law firm after my second year, I would not have had the same opportunities.
If you want to be part of a large law firm in the future, you need to do your absolute best to get a job with a large law firm during the summer after your second year of law school.
2. Large Law Firms Assume that, if You Were Not a Summer Associate, There Must be Something Wrong With You and, if You Were, There Must be Something "Right" About You. People who work inside of large law firms think everyone wants to work inside of these law firms. These attorneys worked extremely hard to get these positions and are very proud of their accomplishments.
- They are from the best law schools or were at the top of their classes.
- They have very good interpersonal skills.
- They are very motivated.
Most attorneys in large law firms have something going for them that the average attorney does not. They feel that if you did not get a summer associate job inside of a large law firm, you must not (1) share their motivation, (2) interview well, or (3) have the ability to sell yourself (which is not good if you are planning on being an attorney).
I've met attorneys who went to law schools like Stanford, Harvard and Yale who tell me things like, "I decided to travel during the summer between my second and third year of law school. It seemed a waste to get a summer associate position when I planned on spending my career in a law firm…"
ARE YOU KIDDING?
These attorneys have an extraordinarily difficult time ever getting a job with a large law firm. It shows these law firms that:
- they are not interested in playing by the rules,
- do not take the experience seriously,
- have other priorities,
- are unlikely to hold up under the stress of a large law firm,
- are too much of an individual and unlikely to be moldable by the law firm,
- and are unlikely to follow directions.
Things like this will make you dead on arrival in the legal profession.
If you tried to get a job and did not succeed, large law firms also assume something is wrong with you.
- You are not resourceful enough,
- You did not try hard enough,
- You do not interview well enough,
- You are not motivated enough,
- You do not have good enough interpersonal skills,
- Your grades must be poor,
- You do not take the work seriously enough.
Why would a large law firm hire you when they have hundreds of people to choose from who do not raise these doubts?
Conversely, if you did get a summer associate job, then the law firm is likely to think there is something right about you.
3. Large Law Firms Are Snobs and Have Their Choice of People. As mentioned above, large law firms often receive thousands of applications. The people (i.e., "products") that a large law firm turns out are generally predictable (even after a summer). Large law firms know what other large law firms are like and consider people from various law firms as being above them, their peers, or beneath them (primarily based on that law firm's hiring standards). If a large law firm sees someone as a peer, they are more likely to be interested in that person.
In Los Angeles, there are some great law firms: Latham & Watkins, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and O'Melveny & Myers. If someone from Latham applies to Gibson, Gibson will likely look at them closely. Conversely, if someone from a not-so-prestigious law firm, like Weinstock Manion , applies to one of these firms, the odds of them getting interviewed are very slim indeed. Law firms are snobs, and they can afford to be.
This is why it makes sense to get into the best possible law firm you can as a summer associate. The prestige level of the law firm you work in as a summer associate at 24 years of age can literally impact the quality of law firm you are working in when you are 50 years old. You need to take it extremely seriously in all respects.
4. You Will Be Exposed to More Important Work on Behalf of Large Clients (and Lots of it). The work that is generally considered the best in the legal field is done on behalf of larger clients. The reason for this is that larger clients are willing to pay higher fees, have more complex matters, and the work is generally high-profile.
In contrast, the work done for smaller clients is often not as important, the clients are very cost-conscious and the work is often petty. Getting exposed to more important matters is crucial for your development as an attorney.
In a small law firm, a corporate attorney might work on articles of incorporation for a smaller company. In contrast, in a large law firm, you may get direct experience working on an initial public offering. In a small law firm, a litigation attorney might represent a family-owned business with 25 employees. In a large law firm, a litigation attorney might represent Northrop Grumman.
In order to justify a law firm's involvement (in lieu of in-house counsel), a law firm needs to have very effective and specialized attorneys on staff. This is why they get important work. When you get a summer associate (and permanent job) with a large law firm, you will get to do this sort of work which is performed at the highest level.
5. The Training is Better. Large law firms generally have much better training. Large law firms are more than happy to give summer associates and their attorneys a lot of training and feedback. This may not be available in smaller legal environments.
The reason the training is better is because the largest law firms will give you (and expect you to master) very low-level work before you are given higher-level and more important work. Clients of large law firms are likely to pay for a variety of attorneys to work on the same matters (and can afford to do so).
The reason this is meaningful is because you will be the best you can possibly be at every aspect of practicing law as you move up the ladder and get more and more experience. You are trained on every aspect of what you are doing and learn very good work habits.
In contrast, a smaller law firm may put you in a position where you are handling the matters for anyone who will pay, and you may be working on a variety of things without mastering any of them. Without this training, you will have a difficult time becoming a great attorney.
6. You Will Learn in an Environment With Higher Expectations for the Quality of Work. One of the most important things that attorneys learn in large law firms is that the quality of the work is extremely important. When clients are paying massive amounts of money for a law firm's services, they expect the work to be of the highest quality. These expectations carry down to summer associates as well. When you are in an environment that expects the very, very best, it forces you to rise to that level (in most cases). This is very important for your career development.
The work quality and discipline that an attorney in a large law firm learns goes way beyond what most attorneys learn in small law firms.
- Typos on work product become unheard of.
- The work becomes extremely deliberate and carefully thought out.
- Deep research is done to uncover inconsistencies.
While all of this certainly occurs in smaller law firms, larger law firms take it to another level, and their clients have the money to spend to make sure the work is done as well as it can be done. As you move down the ladder of the prestige level of law firms (and attorneys), more mistakes become common, more things are missed and there are more issues that come up.
7. The Money is Much Better. While it is not the most important thing for many, money is important. It goes without saying that if you get a job with a large law firm during the summer, you will make a lot more money doing this than alternative jobs. Additionally, once you are an attorney with a larger law firm, you are likely to make more money than you would working in a smaller firm–sometimes as much as 2 to 3 times as much during your first year of practice.
This gap continues to grow the longer you practice with a large law firm.
Even in the largest cities, partners in small law firms may be happy bringing home a few hundred thousand dollars a year, while a partner in a large law firm can easily make over $1 million. If you want to have the best chance to make the most money in the future, the smartest thing you can often do is get a position with the largest law firm possible in the summer.
8. You Will Get More Opportunities and Options Being Hired By a Large Law Firm. If you are hired by a large law firm as a summer associate–and then after law school as an associate–you will have more options at a later date than you would otherwise.
- First, once you are part of the "large law firm fraternity", you will have the ability to work in other law firms (many attorneys work in several). You can work in law firms of equal, or better caliber, over the next several years of your career. In contrast, working in a smaller law firm often eliminates this option.
- Second, it is much easier to get jobs with large, important corporations (as in-house counsel) after working in a large law firm. The reason for this is that large corporations are familiar with the reputations of large law firms. They would much rather hire someone from a large law firm with a good reputation than an attorney from a law firm whose reputation they do not know. This makes a lot of sense. Most prestigious in-house jobs are filled by attorneys from large law firms.
- Third, other prestigious opportunities (working for federal judges, the US Attorney's Office, and working for law schools) are easier when you are coming out of a large law firm. Law firms, like law schools, have reputations. When an organization hires someone from a given law firm, they are often doing so based on the law firm's reputation.
- Fourth, the reputation of a law firm makes it easier for an attorney to pick up and move to (quite literally) other parts of the world they might be interested in (another city or country). If you want to move to a small town, or bigger market, or foreign market, you will have profoundly more opportunities coming out of a large law firm than a smaller one. The reputation of a major law firm can take you across the country or world.
9. You Will Have More Employment Security. I am in no way implying that you cannot lose your job in a large law firm. This happens all the time. The difference between a large law firm and a small law firm, however, is that when you work for a large law firm, you generally (1) get more notice if you are losing your job, (2) have more options if you do, and (3) are in a more financially secure economic environment.
- First, if you lose your job with a major law firm, they will generally give you time to find a new job. I've seen partners be given over a year and associates given over six months to look for a new job. This would generally be unheard of in a small law firm. A small law firm often lets people go the same day–or gives them a couple of weeks' notice. In most cases, large law firms in the midst of down sizing give associates adequate time to start looking for a job. They have deeper pockets, want to defend their reputations and are more concerned about this than smaller law firms.
- Secondly, large law firms are notorious for protecting the people they let go. Many large law firms send other firms their associates to work for clients if they do not have enough work for them. Partners of large law firms also often have large networks of people they can refer the associates to for work. I have seen (on multiple occasions) partners so furious over a law firm letting an associate go that they end up quitting and taking the associate with them to a new firm–or start their own practice with them. When you are working for a large law firm, you are working for more powerful people with more connections who can assist you. Even if a large law firm does not help you transition into a new job, they often are willing to pay for expensive outplacement services to assist you in transitioning into a new employment environment. Finally, as discussed above, due to the reputation of most large law firms, the people from them are quite marketable when they do lose their jobs.
- Third, large law firms are generally in more secure economic environments than small law firms. They typically (1) have more clients, (2) have higher paying clients, (3) have a greater variety of clients, and (4) have a greater variety of work (across multiple practice areas) that insulates them from the problems that the smallest law firms face. Assuming you are personable, work hard and are competent, your career with a large law firm can last 10 or more years–with annual salary bumps. While this is never guaranteed, smaller law firms often go out of business, lose their most important clients and have other problems.
10. You Will Have More Options for the Work You Want to Do (and People to Do it With). The largest law firms have a tremendous variety of work–different types of litigation, tax, corporate, patent, intellectual property and more. This vast variety of work means you often have the choice of practice area you want to concentrate on within the firm. It is not uncommon for summer associates (and then experienced attorneys), to try out several practices before choosing one they are most interested in.
- See What Yale Law School Teaches about How to Approach Your Legal Career That No Other Law School Does for more information about Yale Law School.
More importantly, the largest law firms have a huge variety of people you can work with. One of the biggest mistakes of working in a small law firm is that you do not have many people to give you work. If just a few people do not like you, you could be in serious trouble. The largest law firms are fluid, with many attorneys you can get work from. Thus, you could have mortal enemies–or screw up with several attorneys–and still have a great legal career in the same law firm.
Large law firms offer the opportunity to find attorneys you are interested in working with.
Large law firms are a great place to start your legal career. When you are working in a large law firm in the summer, you will have profoundly more opportunities and the potential for a much more rewarding long-term career.
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