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Summary: Learn about the importance of being a law firm summer associate in your legal career in this article.
For law students, being a summer associate at a law firm is an important first step to having a successful career as a lawyer. Summer associate positions expose law students to the actual practice of law in the real world environment of law firms.
While law school teaches law students about the intellectual aspects of the law, summer associate positions expose future attorneys to the practical aspects of working in the legal profession. What do real lawyers do in a given week? How does it feel to work with clients and on legal matters that make a difference to the bottom line of a big company? How does the work of a litigator differ from that of a corporate lawyer? How do law firms function?
Goal of Summer Associate Programs
The goal of summer associate programs is to give law students a taste of what it is like to work at various law firms, while also allowing the firms to evaluate the intellect, work ethic, and cultural fit of the students to determine if they want to hire them for permanent positions after they graduate from law school.
Summer associate programs are “test runs” for both the students and the firms—giving each the chance to get to know the other to see if they are good fits for a permanent work relationship after graduation.
Overview of Summer Associate Programs
Every summer associate program is unique, but summer associate programs typically involve law firms hiring a certain number of second-year (and sometimes first-year) law students to work at the firm for eight to ten weeks during the summer months. Larger firms in major markets like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles generally have larger “summer associate classes” than smaller firms.
The programs are structured to give summer associates a variety of work assignments and the chance to meet (and work for) as many of the firm’s attorneys as possible. Some programs “rotate” summer associates through two or more practice areas—thus enabling summer associates to experience different kinds of legal work. Other programs have alternative ways of allocating assignments based on summer associate preferences and the needs of the firm.
Summer associates can anticipate doing all sorts of different tasks. They might research and write memoranda of law on important legal issues, take part in preparing the documents necessary to “close” a major financial transaction, or sit at counsel table during trial. Of course, because summer associates are not yet admitted to the bar and are not yet actual attorneys, their work is always done under supervision of firm attorneys.
While summer associate programs are designed to give students the chance to do substantive work, the programs also have an important “social” component and provide many opportunities for summer associates to mix and mingle on a personal level with firm partners and associates. The programs include a variety of social outings and gatherings throughout the summer. All summer associates are encouraged to attend.
Getting Summer Associate Positions
Summer associate positions are paid jobs (unlike internships) and law students apply for summer associate positions just as they would apply for any other job. However, summer associate programs are such a standard part of the law student and law firm experience that the career services departments of many law schools have formalized procedures to help facilitate the application and interview process. These procedures are especially well developed at top law schools, as it is from these top schools that most law firms (especially the large, prestigious ones) want to hire from.
Interviews are an important part of the summer associate application process. Top firms will send attorneys directly to the campuses of certain law schools to conduct “on campus interviews” with the students in which they are interested. In some cases, law students may get offers after a single on campus interview. In other cases, firms will invite students to come to the firm’s offices for “callback” interviews. Callback interviews can involve anything from a single interview with a partner to a day of interviews with various associates and partners.
If you are a law student, we encourage you to contact your law school’s career services department to see what resources they have available to assist students with the summer associate application process. You can also contact the recruitment departments of the firms in which you are interested and ask how to apply to their summer programs.
Many medium- to large-sized law firms (and some boutiques) throughout the country have summer associate programs of one sort or another. The size and scope of the programs vary according to numerous factors, such as the prestige and location of the firm as well as the general economy.
Large, prestigious firms in major markets typically have the largest and most robust summer associate programs. As a general rule, law firms hire more summer associates (and have increasingly lavish summer associate programs) when the economy is good and firms are doing well financially. Likewise, programs tend to reduce in size and scope during recessions and difficult economic times.
Summer Associate Salaries
Summer associate salaries vary according to the prestige of the firm, general market conditions, and other factors. But summer associates are considered to be “associates” for the summer and in many cases are paid first-year starting salaries. This means that summer associates at the most exclusive firms can earn about $3,500 per week, commensurate with a first-year associate.
As indicated by the generous salaries, law firms generally aspire to treat their summer associates very well. Law firms are businesses in need of attorneys to do the work of the firm—and firms thus invest in summer associates in the hopes that they will excel and return as productive permanent associates. In this way, summer programs are an important part of law firm staffing protocols.
Importance of Being a Summer Associate and “Getting the Offer”
At the end of the summer, law firms give employment “offers” to select summer associates to return after law school graduation as permanent first-year associates. Being a summer associate (especially at a top firm) and getting an offer is very important for an attorney’s entire career, so you want to do everything in your power to get a summer associate position and to get an “offer” when the summer is over.
This means you need to take every work assignment seriously and dig into it with the same zeal you would as if you were already a first-year associate and your livelihood depended on it. You also want to take advantage of every opportunity to attend the social gatherings and meet (and impress) as many of the firm’s partners and associates as possible. After all, these are the people who will determine if you are a good “fit” with the firm and who will decide whether or not to extend to you a permanent offer of employment.
Summer associate programs are an important part of the law school and law firm experience. Being a summer associate is an invaluable opportunity to get a real world look at the legal profession. Being a summer associate also is the first step towards a coveted permanent position at a law firm and a rewarding legal career.
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