In the wake of the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009, many local law firms rethought their summer associate programs — the traditional try-out for permanent employment after graduation — by cutting back on the number of students they planned to hire and shortening the length of the program.
Today, though, the hiring climate has shifted, and most firms said the number of law students they bring on this year will be about the same as last year. However, hiring partners said, application numbers are up, making competition tough for the coveted summer spots.
Miles & Stockbridge P.C.’s summer program will have seven students this year: five who have completed their second year of law school and two who have just finished up their first year, said Randi Lewis, the firm’s director of diversity and professional development.
The firm also had seven summer associates in 2009, but in 2010, dropped that the number to three. The count returned to current levels within the last few years, Lewis said.
“The hope is that everybody will come back eventually. The second-year students going into their third year, we’re hiring those students with an eye toward having them come back after they graduate,” Lewis said. “The first-year students, we want them to come back for a second summer.”
The number of students working at Ballard Spahr LLP’s Baltimore office will also remain the same as in 2014, with two summer associates this year, said hiring partner Charles Hirsch.
“I think that our needs are increasing,” he said. “We had gone to having a summer program every other year, and I think this will be the first summer in a couple years where we have back-to-back summer programs.”
Venable LLP’s 10-week program will take eight summer associates, all 2Ls, three of whom are coming from the two law schools in Baltimore, said hiring partner W. Bryan Rakes. The firm has had about eight summers for the past several years, he said.
At most firms, the goal is to make offers to the 2L summer associates for first-year associate positions starting after they graduate and pass the bar exam.
Matthew Gorra, hiring partner at DLA Piper’s Baltimore office, said that describes his firm’s strategy for its summers, where hiring is based on projected need. The firm generally hires 2Ls that it hopes to bring back as first-year associates the following September or October.
“That has been our strategy from the day I walked in this building 15 years ago,” Gorra said. “As a summer associate myself, I was told, ‘This is not a try-out; we’re not here to take 30 percent of you.’”
This year, DLA Piper will have two summer associates in Baltimore, a figure that has fluctuated between two and four the past few years, he said.
But at Whiteford Taylor Preston LLP, the summer associate program is mainly made up of 1Ls, hired on an as-needed basis, said Martin Fletcher, managing partner of the Baltimore office.
This summer, the firm will employ between six and eight, he said, and most will work in Baltimore.
“Generally, what happens is we’ll have someone after their first year, and encourage them to clerk at a different firm their second year,” Fletcher said. “It’s good for them to experience different environments.”
Fletcher said Whiteford Taylor’s program will expand from six weeks to eight this summer, a decision that will give the firm a chance to get to know the students and their legal interests better.
When it comes to permanent hires, Fletcher said, the firm hires “a handful of people each year,” with a mix of lateral associate hires and new law grads.
“We always look at those who’ve come through our program in the past,” he said, “because they’re the ones we have experience with.”
At Ober | Kaler, the emphasis has definitely shifted to lateral hires: the summer associate program was eliminated after 2012.
About 15 years ago, the firm brought in 10 or 11 summers each year, but those numbers dropped to two or three more recently, said Cynthia Cherry, chief human resources officer.
While lateral hiring is the focus now, Cherry said, the firm does employ a targeted entry-level hiring strategy.
“If a practice group has a specific need, then we will recruit a law clerk with the interests and skills to work in that particular area,” she said. “Then they’re completely immersed in that practice area, giving them much more exposure at a deeper level, and giving us greater exposure to their talent.”
Although the number of summer positions has largely stabilized, law firm partners said competition among students hasn’t declined, judging by the number of resumes firms receive.
“We’ve seen an increase in applications,” said Gorra, of DLA Piper. “From our perspective, we’re seeing the same top candidates that we have always historically seen, but we’re seeing a greater variety of people from different schools we might not have seen before.”
Summer associate hiring generally follows the larger legal market, said Hirsch, of Ballard Spahr.
“I think the market has been down for a while, so we get many excellent candidates,” he said. “There are definitely fewer jobs out in the market, but my sense is it’s picking up. That’s my observation — I think we’re on an upward trajectory.”
With an improving economy, Rakes said he hopes to see Venable’s summer program expand in the years to come.
“It’s not an exact science, but we’re certainly cautiously optimistic that the program will grow in the next several years, given where the economy is and how much busier we’ve been in the last 12 months,” he said.