Law firms are making difficult decisions about their futures — how to navigate the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, how to effectively maintain a remote workforce, when and how to safely reopen offices, and more. They are also grappling with how to handle their summer associate programs.
The reality is that this pandemic has put firms in an unexpected and impossible position of having to manage a variety of problems at once. And while there is no right way to balance the present and future when there is so much at stake, one thing is certain: Law students are frustrated and concerned by not knowing what their futures hold.
What Firms Are Doing
There is a complete lack of consistency across the legal industry on how firms are choosing to manage their summer programs. Some firms are moving forward with their programs and trying to figure out how to provide students with a valuable experience remotely — from supplying technology, to scheduling valuable meetings with partners and associates and planning for a few "social" events. Others have shortened their summer programs to just a few weeks or scrapped them altogether.
Likewise, decisions about summer associate compensation have been inconsistent across the industry. Some firms are guaranteeing full pay, others are paying students for the shortened length of time, a few are providing a stipend, and some are not paying at all. There are some firms guaranteeing offers to the entire summer class, while others are canceling altogether.
The firms that are moving forward with their programs have the added challenge of how to put together a program of value that not only delivers a substantive legal experience, but also provides a glimpse into the firm's culture and the city that they would be working in. Many firms have realized that it is impossible to provide the same experience virtually and are turning to out-of-the-box solutions to make their programs as impactful as possible.
This includes pivoting their highly substantive, hands-on program to be more focused on training and development by bringing in internal and external subject matter experts. While the social aspects of the programs are impossible to mirror, firms are sending goodie boxes filled with swag and local treats, having all-firm kickoff events, and hosting happy hours and activities such as virtual trivia or yoga.
The current situation creates some real challenges for summer associates and law firms, but how firms demonstrate their creativity and resiliency will have long-term impacts.
What This Means for Law Students
As firms scramble to formulate a plan B, law students across the country are frustrated by the lack of answers and communication. They have already faced additional stresses due to the transition to remote learning and their schools' changing grading systems. The additional uncertainty about their future employment prospects — and whether they'll get paid for summer associate offers they've already accepted — is weighing heavily on them.
Students whose programs have been canceled feel as though they've been left to fend for themselves. Without a summer job, finding a full-time associate position after graduating from law school becomes that much more difficult. Even guaranteed offers are being eyed with some degree of skepticism — if firms are backing out of their promises this summer, law students cannot help but wonder if there is a chance firms will rescind offers of full-time employment in the future.
For law students whose summer programs are moving forward, the main challenge is figuring out how to stand out and be successful in a remote environment. For some students, that becomes much harder if they do not have access to a quiet and functional remote workspace.
Summer programs are an integral part of the law firm experience, and this year's summer class will miss out regardless of whether their program is moving forward or not. They won't have an opportunity to truly experience law firm culture without walking the halls, seeing how people interact, and building relationships. They will not have the opportunity to enjoy the social aspects of summer programs for which firms are so famous.
What the Future Could Look like for Firms
The summer program is unique to the legal industry; the program and the offers that are made mold a firm's future.
While law firms are and should be balancing the precarious financial situations they are facing and the very real needs of their current attorneys and staff, they also cannot lose sight of the mandate to protect their futures. Firms spend a great deal of time and money positioning themselves to secure the best talent coming out of the best law schools, and summer associate programs are a great way to find and source that talent.
Firms have to anticipate the costs that they may face in the future if they choose to forego their program. The reality is that the financial cost of recruiting down the road to fill any gaps is likely much more than the cost of the summer program itself.
Whether they like it or not, what firms are doing now will dramatically impact their reputation moving forward. Law students use forums like Reddit and send updates to various industry publications about their experiences. How firms handle their summer programs during COVID-19 will be easily searchable for years to come.
Expect future students to be very skeptical in accepting an offer from a firm that was slow to communicate their plan or did not follow through with their program — and expect that skepticism to linger for years. To this day, law students look back to how firms navigated through the Great Recession and make decisions based on those facts.
While pulling off an effective summer program during this pandemic will be no easy feat, firms' investments in their summer programs during this difficult time should be considered necessary. While they need to protect the associates they have now, they also must protect and invest in their future.