BY MARCI ALBOHER, L Magazine, November/December 2000
The firms recruit you. You join them. You leave them. What goes wrong? As big law firms fight creeping attrition, one firm is betting that a revamped summer associate program can help find JDs who are a better match for it–and are more likely to stay. Plus: Results from The American Lawyer’s 2000 Summer Associate Survey.
Early next summer, 50 law students will be stranded for two weeks at a conference site in Leesburg, Virginia, with lawyers from a national law firm. They will be divided into two teams and compete in exercises designed to test their mettle. The latest Survivor incarnation? Think again–it’s Bootcamp, a new brand of legal recruiting announced by maverick law firm Howrey Simon Arnold & White.
It’s a big change from the summer associate model we’ve come to expect from major law firms–eight or 12 weeks of Shangri-la, replete with wine tastings, yacht cruises, and Gatsby-like affairs at the senior partner’s beach house. Of course, there’s always been a little work thrown in, but in the white-shoe world, “summering” has long been more of a time to get to know a firm’s culture than an immersion in the work-a-day life of an indentured associate.
Howrey’s decision to offer an alternative to that model is, in part, a reflection of pressures being felt by law firms around the country. As the economy continues to surge, law firms are flush with work, and competition for talented students is keen–as is the challenge to hold on to recruits. “Associate attrition is an issue nationwide for all of us,” says Kevin Rosen, chairman of the hiring committee at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher. One partner at a New York firm puts it even more bluntly, saying, “We are all terrified that no one will come to work for us.” After three or four years at a large law firm, an associate sees opportunities to move to attractive in-house legal departments or dot-com start-ups or to pursue other career paths offering a seductive change of pace from the tedium and hierarchy of big law firm life. Even other law firms, particularly those with sexy Silicon Valley practices, pose a threat. Howrey has made its Bootcamp bet on the belief that it will produce a better, and more lasting, match between itself and recruits. The retooled program, it contends, will give each an opportunity to make a more substantive assessment of the other–something Howrey thinks is far from feasible in the more party-hearty summer associate programs.
Howrey made its move back in August, just as 2Ls were deciding where to interview for the all-important summer between the second and final years of law school. The firm put up posters around law schools, sent out press releases, and began its campaign promising to “change the way firms, law schools, and clients think about attorney recruitment and training.” The four-week program will consist of two weeks off-site in an intense litigation workshop followed by two weeks at one of Howrey’s offices to get a sense of the firm. Howrey is encouraging the students to work somewhere else for the remainder of the summer in order to be able to compare firms before deciding where to begin their legal careers. The $12,000 paycheck works out to three grand a week, roughly 20 percent higher than the average weekly superwage most summers are already taking home.
WIPING OUT THE “WASTELAND”
The idea for Bootcamp came from a training program already in place at Howrey. A few years ago the firm began a series of Wednesday workshops called the “First Chair Program,” with each day dedicated to honing a particular skill such as taking depositions or arguing before an appellate court. Last summer, all the summer associates came together for a three-day mini-camp during which participants played different roles in a mock trial. CEO Robert Ruyak (Howrey, in another maverick move, has adopted a corporate structure) found that the participants were hungry for more of this.
Ruyak, who officially took the reins of the firm in January 2000, has focused much of his energy on figuring out how to attract and retain the best lawyers. He surveyed the existing summer program and found it to be a “wasteland,” comprised of too many social events and a workload marked by a low level of research and writing. He also felt that students met few of the firm’s most senior lawyers other than those who happened to give them an assignment and those they met in a social setting. At Bootcamp, Ruyak says, students will have an opportunity to meet and work with many of the firm’s senior people in a setting that allows them to learn from seasoned litigators by watching them do what Howrey lawyers do every day, albeit in a different environment.
Bootcamp will be held at the Xerox Document University, a campus-like corporate training center with dorm-style accommodations (all with private bath, televisions, and computer hook-ups), athletic facilities, and a cafeteria. Participants will work on a model case, taking the process from the initial client interview all the way through to a mock trial. Each student team will work closely with two senior associate coaches, and Howrey lawyers will play the roles of clients, witnesses, and judges, offering critique of the students’ work. The firm expects 50 percent of its lawyers to spend at least two days at Bootcamp with a considerable number staying longer. Judy McKenna, Howrey’s partner for professional development, is still hammering out the details but is making sure to “build in surprises and bits of humor so it isn’t entirely serious.” Nevertheless, the firm’s marketing materials make it quite clear that socializing is not the priority: “Each day during Bootcamp, candidates will live the law, with 12 hours of casework, homework, and seminars covering all phases of trial advocacy.”
WILL IT WORK?
Reactions to the initiative have been mixed. “It’s a brilliant marketing move that will help Howrey distinguish itself because all these firms pretty much look alike to law students,” says Gerry Goldsholle, CEO of FreeAdvice.com, a leading legal Web site. An attorney who once served in the Army himself, he believes there’s some value to hard-core training that can ultimately help with retention. “It does create a bond and camaraderie and creates a group cohesiveness that will stand each of them and the organization in good stead,” he says.
Andrew Warren, a 2L at Columbia, agrees that Howrey will attract a lot of good students as long as it is the only firm doing something like this. And Neal Rechtman, CEO of legal recruiting Web site Legalmatch.com, thinks the program is a good example of the type of innovation currently driving the marketplace.
But many law students and lawyers are skeptical. In the anonymity of the Greedy Associates Bulletin Board at Findlaw.com, there was heated discussion for a week following Howrey’s announcement. “If one believes what one hears, only a masochist would stay at Howrey. So why not identify the masochists during recruiting?” wrote someone identified as “Devil’s Advocate.”
Others wonder if all the emphasis on training will result in a program that’s more of a litigation credential than an extended interview with Howrey. With the high paycheck and the ability to split the summer with another firm, might we be seeing a batch of lawyers with “Graduate of Howrey Bootcamp” stamped on their resumes ending up at other law firms? While Ruyak concedes that some students will take the learning and go elsewhere, he feels that for the most part people will be likely to stay because they have made an informed choice. Which suggests that those who do not stay will have made an informed choice, too–and one that may spare the firm, and the candidate, the difficulty of an exit in the future.
One partner at a prestigious New York firm suggests that Bootcamp may say more about what Howrey’s previous program offered than what’s going on at other law firms, and that the firm shouldn’t have been wining and dining summers to the point that they weren’t doing any work. And although Franklin Boyd, a 2L at NYU, believes “it’s interesting in concept” to her and her peers, “if the law firm doesn’t have a good enough reputation, it doesn’t matter what they do for their summer program because you are looking at it for what doors are open to you afterwards.” If the program helps the firm, she thinks it will be in an indirect way. “Maybe the training program will ultimately churn out better lawyers and then its reputation will improve.” Boyd also has some concern about the short duration of the program. After two weeks at her summer job at the New York attorney general’s office, Boyd says she was “just figuring out where the bathroom was.”
Many observers contend that Howrey is just cutting costs. While firms are not about to disclose the price tag of their programs, sources say $500,000 (excluding salaries) is in the ballpark. “Summer programs are expensive for law firms to operate,” says FreeAdvice.com’s Goldsholle. “It’s not just the salaries they pay; it’s the amount of real billable partner and associate time they chew up.”
Richard Ripley, Howrey’s hiring partner, admits that even with hiking weekly salaries by 50 percent, the firm has saved some money by limiting the program to four weeks and eliminating the expense of transporting and housing 200 candidates for call-back interviews. Nonetheless, he says it is too early to say whether the program will ultimately cost less. In the long run, however, they expect the real savings to arise from finding associates who stay at the firm, which will reduce the costs of hiring lateral associates.
Success on that front just might quiet the skeptics–many of whom, no doubt, have seen a depressing rise in their own costs of replacing departed lawyers. As firms have watched associates in whom they’ve invested years of training and salaries head for the doors, they’re eager to find any way to hold on to those worth keeping.
So what does this mean for law students hoping that the summer associate program will help them make an informed decision on where they want to work? For the time being, other law firms we talked to seem to have no interest in abandoning their perk-packed summer associate programs (which may indicate an unwillingness to make too strong a connection between initial recruiting efforts and eventual retention troubles). In fact, people involved in the process think the current recipe of a slew of get-to-know-you events coupled with a healthy dose of work and training makes perfect sense as a way for the wooers and the wooed to get to know each other. Their philosophy is that working in a law firm is about people, and the best way to determine whether a law student will fit in with a firm’s culture is to put them together in a variety of work and social situations. Paula Patton, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, says she has not seen “a groundswell of activities intended to dramatically reform these programs. After all, some firms are celebrating virtually 100 percent acceptance rates, a sign that things may continue as usual.” Elizabeth Peck, director of career services at Washington and Lee School of Law, concurs, adding that law firms are basically “conservative and risk-averse” and therefore any industrywide change would happen slowly.
In its advertising, Howrey says Bootcamp is an alternative to “boring summer associates with 12 or more weeks of endless legal research memos, obligatory pizza parties, and minimal partner contact.” But is that really what’s going on? Not necessarily, says Diane Downs, assistant dean and director of career services at the University of Chicago, where students “sign up in droves to interview with Cravath and Wachtell,” two firms that have reputations for working students hard during the summer. Mock trials and negotiations and a panoply of other training programs exist at most major firms covering everything from depositions to IPOs and venture capital. And with the typical eight- or 12-week stay at a firm, students have plenty of chances to walk the hallways and see associates in their natural habitat.
Stephen Fishbein, hiring partner at Shearman and Sterling, feels that the Howrey model wouldn’t work for his firm because, as he describes it, Shearman places a high premium on exposing summer associates both to the firm’s breadth of practice areas and to its international focus. Students in Shearman’s program are encouraged to spend 10 or 12 weeks at the firm with two or three rotations in different offices or practice areas (last summer one-third spent time in overseas offices). “You just can’t do that in four weeks, especially when half your time is spent away from the office,” he says.
More than that, Kevin Rosen of Gibson, Dunn believes that taking people out of the office and forcing them into an “artificial environment” is not the way to give students a sense of what it would be like to be an associate at a law firm. The way he sees it, his firm is willing to incur the “substantial expense of having a full rather than abbreviated summer program to ensure that students who come here end up knowing what it’s like to be a lawyer here.” The Gibson, Dunn program involves a combination of training programs, seminars on the firm and its practice areas, exposure to pro bono activities, work on projects with lawyers at the firm, and a fair share of socializing. When students arrive, they are outfitted with the same state-of-the-art technology as all of the firm’s lawyers–laptops with docking stations, portable e-mail devices, and access to the firm’s intranet, so that they understand the firm’s goals of being as efficient and client-responsive as possible. Steven Shoemate, another hiring partner at the firm, stresses that there is no substitute for attending a meeting with a partner, associate, and client, observing how lawyers handle themselves in a professional atmosphere.
The value of exposing students to the firm during a longer period of time with glimpses of real work was repeated again and again by hiring partners at other large firms. Jim Herschlein, chair of the recruiting committee at Kaye, Scholer, says the best way for students to get a sense of firm life is to spend 10 or 12 weeks working at the firm with lawyers on real cases that the firm is handling. He admits that there may be something somewhat “coercive” about the wining and dining, but even with such romancing there are plenty of opportunities for real work, and each summer there is the inevitable story of the summer associate who had to pull an all-nighter to meet a deadline.
Lindsay Dinn, a law clerk for a federal judge in Chicago, thought her summer associateship at Kirkland & Ellis struck an appropriate balance between work and play. While she took part in events as extravagant as a weekend in Vegas, she thought Kirkland “did a good job of not hiding what was going on” and offered many opportunities for real work. Some of what she did: drafting motions and other pleadings, attending depositions and a hearing for a preliminary injunction, and helping to draft a will and power of attorney for a pro bono client afflicted with AIDS. On nights she stayed late, she noticed who was still working and having dinner at their desks. Most importantly, she met people at every level of the firm and had a genuine bonding experience with the other students in her class. “There is something to be said for going out to lunch with people at your firm–it’s a good way to get to know them,” she says.
Additionally, each summer Kirkland organizes a mini mock trial called KITA, bringing together summer associates from its various offices to compete for three days and receive feedback from firm lawyers playing judges. Every student has a chance to do opening statements, direct and cross-examinations of witnesses, and closing arguments with strict observance of the federal rules of evidence.
Eric Rosenwood, a 3L at Washington and Lee, handled an entire trial from start to finish (earning a victory for his client, a victim of domestic violence seeking to enforce a protective order against her husband) during his summer at Moore & Van Allen, PLLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. Moore & Van Allen uses its pro bono caseload as an opportunity for summer associates to have a real-life experience with clients who are appreciative of whatever representation they receive, even if their lawyers aren’t the most seasoned. As Rosenwood observes, “there is nothing in a simulated environment that can match the pressure of having an antagonistic opposing counsel and a client calling you every other day to check on the progress of the case.”
At press time, Howrey was quite pleased with the number and quality of applications it had received. But finding interested students is only the first step. After graduating the first Bootcamp class, Howrey will need to see whether this method of recruiting helps cultivate a crop of lawyers who have a better sense of what they are in for down the road–and then decide to continue on that road with Howrey. If there’s a lesson to be learned, be sure that other firms will learn it quickly: In the quest to be all they can be, law firms will surely rush to emulate a victor rather than risk becoming the vanquished.
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