“Over the course of the summer, leaders at the country’s biggest law firms have come to an unpleasant realization: They’re about to employ more lawyers than they need,” writes the WLJ’s Ashby Jones.
The credit-crunch, writes Jones, along with “a strange and rigid hiring process that has been entrenched for a long time,” have conspired to leave law firms with an over-abundance of $160,000 paperweights. Much of the problem lies with the summer associate program, which requires firms to commit to law students two (or more) years before they will actually begin as first-year associates. (For instance: This fall’s incoming associate class was hired in the fall of 2006, during Wall Street boom times.)
All that certainty, for the firms and the law students, doesn’t add up to much business sense, writes Jones. Indeed, with the flaw in the law firm hiring process now so glaring due to a spiraling economy, bigger firms are questioning the tradition. “It’s created challenges,” admits James Rishwain, the chairman of Pillsbury Winthrop. Earlier this year, Pillsbury and other firms decided to stagger the start dates of incoming associates to several months over the course of the fall, rather than having them all start in September. “We’ll look for secondment opportunities,” he adds. “And technology will help us. Lawyers in L.A. can work on New York-based projects, and vice versa.”
With all the problems associated with the hiring process, why stick with it? Rishwain says the social functions and mentoring of a summer-associate program builds camaraderie and morale across all levels.
And the programs give both the firms and summer associates the opportunity to back out of a bad fit. We wonder, though, how often do either of those scenarios really happen?
Others cite tradition. “It’s existed for decades and hardly anyone gives any critical thought to it,” says Mark Rust, the head of Barnes & Thornburg’s Chicago office. Earlier this month, Rust’s office chucked its summer-associate program, largely because of the hiring difficulties it creates. “Now, when we look at our staffing, we ask, ‘Who is it that we need?’ ” he adds.
“If we need a restructuring lawyer, we’ll go out and hire one as a third-year or as a lateral attorney. It’s ‘just-in-time inventory.’”