News & Politics

Wooing Newbies with Ferraris and Cristal

Having a hard time getting into your favorite restaurant? Blame the summer associates. Every year, local eateries enjoy a booming business as future lawyers descend on area firms.

Summer associates, or “summers” for short, are typically students going into their third and final year of law school, spending a few months at a law firm to decide if they might want to work there after graduation. If all goes well, the firm extends an offer to return on a permanent basis and the summer accepts.

Summers earn the salaries of first-year associates—around $3,000 a week—but aren’t worked nearly as hard. Instead, they’re wined and dined, treated to two-hour lunches at the city’s finest establishments. A lawyer at Arnold & Porter observes, “If you go into Oceanaire on a typical weekday at lunch, three-quarters of the tables are summer-associate parties.” A former summer at Covington & Burling estimates he paid for his own lunch “maybe three times the whole summer” and gained about seven pounds.

Firms also organize events for their young charges, trying to get them to associate the words “law firm” with “fun.” Outings include baseball games, cooking classes, casino nights, and scavenger hunts. Kennedy Center shows are also popular.

Hogan & Hartson hosts a summer-associate retreat, bringing together summers from all of its domestic offices, at the Marriott Ranch in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Kirkland & Ellis holds a go-cart derby; winners get to tool around in a partner’s Ferrari. Covington organizes a canoing trip. Injuries are inevitable, according to a former summer: “The rapids aren’t that big, but the lawyers aren’t that coordinated.”

Every summer associate we spoke with, current and former, requested anonymity; keeping a low profile at the firm is a big plus. Each year brings the story of a summer or two who got noticed for the wrong reasons, like getting too drunk or replying “to all” to the wrong e-mail. Summer 2005 saw one associate who got drunk at an event, stripped down to her underwear, and jumped into a river. A summer last year hit on a partner’s wife and didn’t get a job offer. One story going around Skadden Arps involves a summer associate in New York running up a $3,000 bar tab, including Cristal Champagne.

Williams & Connolly is known for a more restrained, work-oriented experience. “This is not a place with a lot of fancy artwork on the walls,” explains an associate. “The same ethos applies to the summer. A really ritzy program would not be in keeping with the firm culture.”

Should summers feel guilty about their lavish lifestyles? Hardly. They’ll have ample opportunity to put their noses to the grindstone when they return as regular associates. Top law firms recently raised starting salaries to $160,000, and billable hours will rise accordingly. As DC Bar past president James Sandman warned darkly in Washington Lawyer: “Higher salaries inevitably mean higher billable-hour expectations and even less work-life balance.”

So gather ye rosebuds while ye may, summer associates. Once graduated and hired, no one describes the first years at a big law firm as fun.