Summer associate recruiting is ‘fast and furious’ after pandemic slowdown

  • OCI has returned to summer after a temporary move to January, but remains largely virtual
  • Many firms plan to bring in more summer associates, especially in transactional practices

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(Reuters) – Summer associate recruiting is well underway, and early reports suggest that many law firms are looking to bolster the number of law students they hire after taking a conservative approach the previous cycle—the first of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has been fast and furious,” said James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) of what’s traditionally referred to as on-campus recruiting, or OCI. “Given the crush of the lateral associate volume in and out, some of the firms are trying to beef up their summer classes a bit.”

It’s too soon to know how much summer associate hiring will increase this season. Initial interviews started at top law schools the last week of July and are wrapping up this week, mainly online. Many of those law schools are already in the callback interview phase, though national figures on law firm hiring won’t be available until the spring.

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Latham & Watkins are among the firms that have set out to bring in more summer associates this cycle. Akin Gump has added two law schools to its recruiting roster this year and aims to boost the size of its summer associate class by 30%, from 55 to about 70 students, said hiring partner David Botter.

“For us, that’s a significant increase,” he said. “We’ve always made sure that our summers are completely involved in all the aspects of our law firm and do real work.”

Botter expects that the bulk of this year’s additional hires will be placed in the firm’s busy transactional practice, though many other practices will also see more summer associates due to the sheer volume of the hiring increase.

Latham & Watkins, which typically has one of the largest summer associate programs, is also looking to staff up its transactional practice, along with its technology and life sciences, energy, and financial services practices.

“The trajectory is continuing to grow upwards,” said Latham partner Abid Qureshi, chair of the firm’s global recruiting committee. “We expect to have more [summer associates] than last summer, which is more than we had the year before. We’re witnessing very heightened demand across all our practices and offices, and as a result, we are looking to bolster our summer classes.”

PLAYING CATCH-UP

National data from NALP show that law firms pulled back on summer associate hiring earlier this year in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty about the market for legal services. The median number of summer associate offers extended by law firm offices for 2021 summer positions fell to 8 from 11 the previous cycle, and 76% of law schools reported a decline of 5% or more in the number of legal employers recruiting students for those summer positions.

Those declines may well disappear this recruiting cycle, as law firms enjoy robust demand for their services. Demand for experienced associates has prompted escalating bonuses and a race to boost base pay, with first-year associates now commanding $205,000 in salary alone at many firms.

The number of firms currently interviewing at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law is up about 12% compared to the previous cycle, said career services dean David Diamond, and the total number of student interviews is on track with pre-pandemic figures.

“It’s going well,” Diamond said. “I feel like this year it has been very smooth. The technology is fantastic. We’ve had a lot more time to prepare students for virtual interviews.”

This is the second summer associate recruiting cycle to unfold almost entirely online. When the pandemic hit the U.S. in March of 2020, most law schools quickly decided to delay OCI from the traditional late summer timeline to early January 2021, before the start of the spring semester. That delay gave them nearly six months to figure out how to shift interviewing from an in-person to virtual format and give firms more time to gauge their hiring needs.

But the January timing proved difficult for law schools, and they decided to return to the traditional summer timing this cycle. The virtual aspect of OCI has remained, however, with nearly all firms conducting initial interviews online. Some firms had hoped to conduct callback interviews in person, though the swift rise of the Delta variant prompted most to reconsider, Leipold said.

Latham is allowing candidates to do callback interviews in person at their request and when possible, but has made virtual callbacks an option for everyone, Qureshi said. Akin Gump is sticking to virtual callbacks.

“We’re really focused on protecting people’s health and are also concerned about not putting any undue pressure on people,” Botter said. “If you had in-person callbacks, even though you would clearly say to a student, ‘It’s only if you are comfortable,’ there was a concern on our part that even if the student was uncomfortable, they would feel pressure to do it in person.”

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Karen Sloan