August is an important month in the world of law firm recruiting. Many firms employ law students as summer clerks and large law firms often have elaborate summer programs. The largest firms in big cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles often pay huge salaries to summer interns and use the time not to test student abilities but rather to "sell" the firm to these potential permanent hires.
Several years ago a student told me that the firm for which he was a summer intern paid each student $1,800 per week plus half the cost of rent for an apartment and even provided several hundred dollars to each intern to assist in purchasing an "appropriate" wardrobe for work. And for all of this the students did very little actual work, but spent much of their time being wined and dined.
August marks the end of the summer intern season for most law firms. It is a time to evaluate the success of the programs, to evaluate the costs of these programs, and to begin the task of recruiting permanent employees during the autumn recruiting season.
It is usually also in August that the popular legal periodicals like The National Law Journal begin to print rumors of what the new recruiting season will bring. This year the rumors are quite amazing. It is rumored that the very largest law firms in the biggest American cities will be starting new lawyers at an annual salary of $125,000 with the possibility of a year-end bonus of as much as $25,000 more and will be paying as much as $2,500 per week for next year's summer interns. A second-year law student could earn more than $30,000 next summer working for one of these law firms.
Of course, such salaries are only going to be paid by a few dozen, if that many, law firms around the country and most law students and law graduates will earn far less. Nonetheless, salaries of this size do take one's breath away.
However, as is often the case in life, appearances are not always quite consistent with reality. What law students at these firms see during the summer rarely coincides with the reality of young lawyers employed after graduation.
For instance, many of these law firms now expect their young lawyers to bill as many as 2,800 hours per year. In practice, this means that these young lawyers are expected to work 70 or 80 hours per week.
One article in The National Law Journal recently quoted the managing partner of a large New York City law firm about computers. The managing partner proudly announced that his firm had significantly upgraded its computer capabilities and every lawyer was now to be equipped with a lap-top computer, a personal digital assistant, and all necessary software so that each lawyer would be able to work from anywhere in the world 24 hours a day. I confess that my thought was that I was very glad that I didn't work there!
Indeed, perhaps the most interesting news about legal recruiting this summer was the announcement by a large Washington, D.C., law firm that it was radically changing its summer intern program. The partners had decided that it was both too costly and misleading. As one partner noted, young lawyers at their firm were paid to work long hours and not have fun, so why fool the interns?
The new summer program is going to be a two-week "boot camp" in which interns get up early, work until late into the night, and generally experience the lifestyle of lawyers in the firm.
I suppose that the lesson in all this is that even though the salary figures sound quite spectacular, law students who are looking for a job this year might think carefully about what will be expected of them. And they might want to discount their summer experiences and recognize that reality is a bit different.
Indeed, they might remember an old joke that has been going around legal circles for decades. The joke recounts of a conversation between a lawyer who has just died and gone to Hell and Lucifer:
Lawyer: "Wait a minute. What's going on here. When I had my surgery last year and had a near death experience, I came down here for a short while. Everything looked great. People were smiling and happy. The sky was blue and all the demons were beautiful creatures. Now everything is sulphur and brimstone. The sky is red and the air is filled with screams of pain and terror. The demons are horrible to look at. What's going on?"
Lucifer, shoving the lawyer into the hottest flames: "Oh, you foolish mortal, you visited while our summer program was under way. You, of all people ought, to have known better!"
Mike Hoeflich is a professor at the Kansas University School of Law.