FOR BIGLAW SUMMER ASSOCIATES ONLY…

You’re thrilled, and understandably so.

In an impossible job market, you came up a winner. The summer associate offer rate for all firms dropped to its lowest level since NALP started gathering such statistics 17 years ago. But you worked hard, got good grades, and listened to tips from hiring partners describing what they wanted in a new lawyer.

You scored big. In compensation, it’s a summer job like none you’ve ever had. Your most pressing concern is whether there will be a repeat of last year’s dip in the full-time job offer rate for summer associates — 69% compared to 90% in 2008. So now you’re heeding advice that ranges from proper attitude to correct attire. At least there is some encouraging summer associate etiquette news. According to one biglaw hiring partner, “indiscretion happens with alcohol, but people understand that. You usually have to knock a partner out cold for it to be a career-ending event.”  Whew! That’s a relief.

Anticipating a favorable next step, you hope that your full-time job offer at the end of the summer is real. You don’t want to wind up like the more than 60% who planned to start their careers at large law firms immediately upon graduation this year, only to be deferred into 2011 and 2012. You can’t bear to think about some of your predecessors who received offers of full-time employment after their successful 2008 and 2009 summers, only to see them revoked outright a few months later.

You’re focused on making sure the firm likes you. There’s no time to consider other things — including whether you like the firm.

Here’s a suggestion: think about those other things now, even if only briefly.

At a recent Cubs game, I was talking with a fellow biglaw refugee. He’d practiced in a large law firm — not mine — for more than 25 years before retiring two years ago.

“What questions should today’s biglaw summer associates ask?” I began.

“It depends on what they want,” he suggested. “They probably fall into one of two categories. The first group consists of those wanting good training, needing a decent salary to pay off their student loans, and planning to do something else when that debt is gone. A second group wants to make a career at a big firm; they think they’re in for the long haul.”

“OK, so what should someone in the first group investigate?”

“That’s easy,” my friend responded. “Mentoring. How is the training? Will they have opportunities to develop skills that make them better lawyers?”

“How about the second group — the ones who think they want a large law firm career?”

“For them, it boils down to a simple question: who among the equity partners has a life that they’d want? If they can’t identify such a person, that’s a big problem. If they can, then they have to dig deeper.”

“Such as,” I pressed.

“Such as, how did the senior attorney do it? Is he or she an oddity? Did the partner succeed under a biglaw model that no longer exists? Most large firms don’t resemble what you and I joined 30 years ago. Your new book says it all.”

“And to get at that issue,” I added, “they should search for answers to these questions:

1. Excluding laterals, how many new equity partners did the firm make this year?

2. How many years did it take them to get there?

3. What was the size of their original associate class?

4. What happened to everyone else?

If the chances of capturing the brass ring are about the same as winning the lottery, at least they know the ground rules. The answers will reveal the culture and working environment of the place.”

“Yep,” he said. “And whether it’s conducive to a happy life. Your new book covers that one, too.”

But some aspects of life seem destined to remain unsatisfying; an hour later, the Cubs lost — again.

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