By Dan Roe for The American Lawyer
Congratulations Big Law partners, counsels, associates and support staff: You did it again. As they return for their final year of law school, this year’s summer associates are brimming with optimism about their future careers at your law firms, which 73% of associates expect to have. You convinced 7 out of 8 summers to say they’d accept an offer from your firm due to your lavish associate retreats, meaningful mentorship, interesting legal work, engaging senior partners and disarming culture.
The class of 2023 might be aware of the challenges they’ll face as Big Law associates and the systemic problems facing the profession, but the vast majority still believe your law firm is different. They’ve never had any other porridge, yet they know yours is best. “This is a Goldilocks firm,” said a Winston & Strawn summer associate. “You’re not going to be working with the most competitive gunners from law school, but you will still be working on high-stakes matters with big name clients. People here take the work very seriously, but don’t take themselves too seriously. I cannot imagine the quality of life is significantly better anywhere else in Big Law.”
That’s the bar you set for yourselves, and that’s what summer associates will expect when they arrive for full-time employment next fall. If that sounds dismissive of firms’ hard work to wine, dine and charm their guests, it’s because summer associates’ feedback on their law firms and the profession in general sours by the time those summers respond to our midlevel associate survey years later.
Firms described as veritable sweatshops by a portion of their midlevels each year were lauded for being “lifestyle firms” by the summers they hosted. Meanwhile, law students and law schools are talking more about Big Law burnout, and 2022 summers said work-life balance was the primary determinant of whether they’d work at a firm. As law firms remain locked in a staring match with millennials who push back on extreme hours and won’t return to the office five days a week, they have just set expectations even higher for a more demanding and better-informed group of law students.
Big Law Turns On the Charm
Most summer associates had overwhelmingly positive experiences at their firms. The majority of law firms in our survey of 5,485 summer associates scored above 4.5 out of 5 after we asked summers to give firms marks on partner access and mentorship, interactions with other associates, interesting legal work, and firms’ alignment with their own stated goals and self-image.
Despite firms’ extravagant summer associate retreats and events, which we’ll get to shortly, associates valued their experiences in the office. Two-thirds of firms held mostly in-person programs, while one-third welcomed associates to the office five days a week. Hybrid work continues to be the most popular policy, with 84% of associates calling it their ideal working environment.
Hundreds of summers remarked that firm offices weren’t as stuffy or formal as they had imagined. “It isn’t uncommon to see partners walking around in shorts,” said one Katten Muchin Rosenman summer associate. “During the first half of the summer, I wore button-downs, dress pants, dress shoes and the occasional tie. But during the latter half, I am comfortable wearing jeans, a polo and some Vans or other tennis shoes.”
About half of summer associates said they were concerned about mental health in the legal profession, and those who voiced concerns said students and professors at their law schools talk about the grueling nature of Big Law. “I have been told by many in the area of Big Law and by my professors that Big Law is extremely mentally taxing, demanding, high-pressure, and time consuming,” said a summer associate at DLA Piper. “I understand this and have come to terms with it.”
However, those with existing mental health issues worried how they would deal with law firm life. “I have a history of mental health challenges, and I think this profession in general rewards overworking, lack of balance and drawing boundaries between personal and professional life,” said one Foley & Lardner summer associate. “I am also aware of the staggering statistics of suicide and depression among lawyers.”
Others had specific concerns about not fitting in with the culture at their firms and others. “As a woman of color, it is my hope that I am encouraged to prioritize my mental health, as this is a new space to be in and takes time to adjust,” said one summer associate.
Nearly three-quarters of summers said they felt their firms genuinely cared about mental health. Even summers who landed at prestigious firms with high billable expectations remarked that they weren’t filled with “gunners.”
“My classmates were all ambitious and accomplished, but not typical gunners,” said a Goodwin Procter summer associate. “Great culture, no gunners” at Crowell & Moring, said one summer, while a Ropes & Gray summer associate said the firm isn’t a place for gunners or aggressive people. “If you want a friendlier, less competitive environment, this is the place for you.”
This year’s summer associates are doing better financially than last year’s class, according to survey data, but 70% said they’re still banking on Big Law to pay off their student loans. Yet, the average expected student loan balance upon graduation fell from $137,000 to $93,000, and weekly associate compensation went up from $3,840 to $4,354.
Generation Z’s motivations for getting into law may offer firms some comfort. “Helping people” ranked behind high compensation on associates’ hierarchy of reasons for pursuing law, although the top reason remained the opportunity to do interesting and intellectually challenging work.
Law firms also opened their pocketbooks for lavish events and retreats. Firm-wide retreats usually received high marks from associates who attended, such as Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe’s San Francisco Summer Associate Academy, McDermott Will & Emery’s Chicago retreat, and Cooley’s four-day trip Seascape Beach Resort in Monterey Bay, California. Meanwhile, O’Melveny & Myers took summers on a VIP trip to Disneyland, and a DLA Piper partner in San Diego hosted a sailing trip on her yacht.
Lower-cost, intimate events also left big impressions. A Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner associate recalled showing up to the first dinner party of the summer at a partner’s home in a suit and tie. “I was nervous about making a good impression,” the associate said. “Within 5 minutes, I was told I do not need to dress so formally if I do not want to, and by the end of the evening all of the summer associates were sitting on the back porch with a handful of partners and their families. It was a very cool moment, and I have felt incredibly welcome ever since then.”