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Md. law firms rethink approach to summer associate programs

Summer associate programs at some of the larger and mid-sized law firms around Baltimore are a mixed bag this year. Some firms, like Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP and Ballard Spahr LLP, have jettisoned the programs for 2011; others, like Saul Ewing LLP, are resurrecting programs after a hiatus; and a few, like DLA Piper US LLP and Miles & Stockbridge, are expanding.

For firms that are scaling back regionally and nationwide, a legal consultant said there’s one major reason.

“It’s all about the money,” said Tom Clay, a principal with law firm consultancy Altman Weil Inc.

“They went through big cost reductions in 2009 and this continues to be a reduction,” he said.  “Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s anything but money, it’s just that plain and simple.”

Money, yes — and supply and demand.

Whiteford, Taylor, which has offices in Baltimore, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Delaware, previously had a centralized summer program out of its Baltimore office.

That’s on hold now that the market is flooded with associate-level lawyers, managing partner Martin P. Fletcher said.

“What we’ve decided to do is skip a year in our summer associate program and evaluate how we’re bringing in associates,” he said. “There are so many laterals in the market that we can get for the same cost, with three or four years of experience.”

Likewise, Ballard Spahr has decided for the second consecutive year to forgo having a summer program. Raymond G. Truitt, managing partner of the firm’s Baltimore office, said Ballard has continued to receive “a number of very strong” unsolicited resumes, as students search for a firm with openings.

Truitt said he expects that students will continue to deal with uncertainty as law firms attempt to regain their footing.

“I think it’s going to continue to be a difficult market for a while, unfortunately,” he said. “I think the time when firms could meaningfully project their hiring two years in advance is not going to resume anytime soon.”

That’s what Altman Weil is seeing in markets elsewhere, Clay said.

“I don’t see much moving back to the old norm at all,” he said. “It’s ‘We’ve already scaled back’ or ‘We’re scaling back and we’re not going to go back anytime soon.’”

That, in turn, translates into fiercer competition for summer spots nationwide. Students from big-name schools seeking out positions at offices they might not have considered in the past could potentially push out students who would typically apply for local positions.

And since law school applications continue to rise, the problem could continue well into the future if law firms continue to restrict hiring.

“There’s going to be a lot more demand for jobs,” Clay said. “We’re even seeing kids say they’ll work for free just to get the experience. Law firms are in the driver’s seat in this for sure.”

That’s a fact law schools have known for a while now. University of Baltimore School of Law Dean Phillip J. Closius told The Daily Record this month that the shift became apparent in 2008.

“Law schools can see the legal economy for good or bad earlier than almost anybody else, because we see it in the summer recruiting market,” he said. “So we knew the economy was in trouble legally when…people who had been hiring 35 people, were coming in and saying ‘We’re going to hire four.’”

Holding steady

The summer hiring picture is getting brighter, though, Closius said. Second-year students have been far more successful in landing summer positions in the last two months than in the last two years, he said.

Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, which is holding steady with three summer associates for 2011, is drawing interest from students from the University of Baltimore, University of Maryland, Georgetown University and Catholic University, which is pretty typical for the firm’s summer program. What’s changed are class rankings and the level of involvement in Law Review and trial team.

One thing that has not changed is summer associate pay at Semmes. Firm Principal and Chairman Richard Scheiner said summers are still paid the equivalent of what first-year associates would have made in the same time period.

Miles & Stockbridge, which plans to hire five or six associates for the summer, also will keep its pay equal to a first-year lawyer’s.

Expansion plans

Both Miles and DLA Piper are bucking the trend by expanding their summer programs. DLA will have four summer associates in its Baltimore office, compared to two in 2010 and close to the five it had in 2009.

Miles, too, will be almost back to its seven-student program of 2009, a bump over its 2010 program of three students.

Saul Ewing, which did not have a summer program in 2010, is planning to bring on four law school students for its 2011 summer program in Baltimore. That’s an increase over its 2009 summer class of three students.

Jason St. John, hiring partner in Saul Ewing’s Baltimore office, said the firm always knew the summer program would resurface in 2011. It decided not to have one last year because it was not sure what its hiring prospects would be for junior-level associates, and did not want to bring students in for 10 weeks if it wouldn’t be making offers.

“We’re looking for people to come spend a career with us,” he said. “We could not accurately project our hiring needs for 2011, and just have people come in for the summer.”

St. John acknowledged the difficult position law students are in right now, since opportunities are scarce. He said he tells students to be as prepared as possible for interviews, and to make sure they’re involved in their schools and get experience in clinics or through government internships.

“It’s no longer just enough in 2010 to have strong academics,” he said. “It’s strong academics plus.”

Party’s over

It’s hard to believe that just a few years back, some big firms were treating their summer associate programs like a courtship, with trips, lavish dinners and 10 weeks of entertainment leading up to an offer.

The party is long over.

Ballard, which had no summer associates this year, has been particularly cautious when it comes to hiring over the last few years. While the firm did have two summer associates in 2009, neither got an offer for 2010 based on the needs of the firm.

Other firms, which did have programs in 2010, had better news: they said they made offers to anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent of summer associates for fulltime employment.

And the long-deferred start dates of recent years may also be gone. The firms said they expect students hired out of summer programs in 2010 to start sometime after their graduation in 2011.

Workload for summer associates at all firms is expected to kick up a notch.

“By and large what they’re trying to do now is, rather than wining and dining, they’re getting the kids good, solid work to find out if they want to hire them,” Clay said. “Believe me: kids are just happy to get these positions now.”