Monday, June 17, 2013

Less wining and dining, more practical legal training for this year's summer associates

Several San Francisco area law firms interviewed for this story from The Recorder via explain that the emphasis in this year's summer associate programs is on practical training rather than leisurely lunches and nights on the town.  The shift in emphasis is because firms need their  summer hires to become productive more quickly than ever before due to financial pressure from clients.   Nor are this year's crop of summer associates complaining about the scaled back social calendar; they're just happy to have jobs. 

For Summers, It's More Boot Camp, Less Beaujolais

Gone are the days of cruises and caviar. These days, law firms' summer associate programs are more like boot camp for lawyers-in-waiting.

At least that's what's in store for law students arriving at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, where the summer kicks off with an exercise that chief talent officer Robert Williams calls "basic training." For two weeks, the firm's summer associates face off in teams of two to try a case from start to finish, from gathering evidence to preparing closing statements. The activity culminates with a trial before a jury of six Sheppard Mullin employees and a real-life judge.

It's a far cry from the classic Big Law summer of memos followed by cocktail hour, Williams notes.

"We're way beyond that," he said. Even in the dog days of summer, neither firms nor the students that began arriving at the end of May have time for those rituals. With clients enjoying greater bargaining power after the recession, firms need to staff matters with associates armed with real skills. Law students can't ignore the market dynamics either. An informal Recorder survey of 11 firms conducted last fall found that this summer's San Francisco Bay Area classes are 40 percent smaller than they were in 2007. The students who land the coveted spots report to the office in top form, said Stephen Venuto, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe's firmwide head of on-campus attorney recruiting.

"Their focus in previous years was on having a great time and making sure the firm was a good place to work," said Venuto, a Silicon Valley-based corporate partner. "Now they're focused on understanding what it's like to be a good lawyer so they can be one sooner."

Firms have responded to that call by stepping up the training they deliver. For the past few years, Fenwick & West has called upon its professional development staff to deliver a wider range of programming to summer associates. In addition to delving into the practice of law with clinics on depositions and negotiations, Fenwick also tries to impart the softer skills that associates need to navigate the firm, said Julieta Stubrin, Fenwick's director of attorney recruiting and diversity. One writing course centers on internal communications.

"They learn how to write a brief email that will get the partner's attention right away," Stubrin said.

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