What is a summer associate?

What is a Summer Associate?

Upon entering law school, many students hear the term “summer associate” and wonder “what is a summer associate, and how does that differ from a law clerk or intern?”.

To confuse matters, some students and employers will refer to any summer work experience as a summer associate position. But this is a bit of a misnomer because a summer associate, in the traditional sense, is a very specific type of job.

Summer Associate Meaning

A summer associate is a law student hired into a summer associate program at a large law firm.

Summer associate programs are unique in that they are designed to attract top talent early and to retain that talent upon graduation.

Law firms host summer associate programs that typically last 8 to 12 weeks (though some firms have been cutting the length of their program as a result of the pandemic). During the summer, summer associates work full-time for the firm. At the end of the summer, the student will be offered a position upon graduation if she has done a good job, met deadlines, and acted professionally.

Because of this, some describe summer associate positions as an “extended job interview.”

What is a Summer Associate Hiring Cycle?

Most summer associate programs are designed for 2Ls. The idea is that incoming or “rising” second-year law students will interview for summer associate positions in August before their 2L year.

If they are offered a job in the summer associate program, then they will work for the firm the summer between their second and third year of law school.

Summer associates are usually hired through a law school’s On-Campus Interview Program. However, some firms engage in “pre-cruiting” or otherwise interview outside of the OCI program.

The National Association of Law Placement previously imposed strict guidelines on the timing of 2L recruiting to make the process fairer for students. But in recent years, the organization has switched to principles that employers are “encouraged” to follow.

The reason recruiting 2Ls outside of OCI can be problematic is that a given student may not have the opportunity to interview with all firms and thoroughly explore her options.

In other words, if a few firms interview before the rest, it creates an unfair situation for the student. This is one of the reasons many CSOs encourage students to apply through the OCI program.

But I don’t recommend waiting. If a firm is engaging in pre-cruiting or otherwise asking to meet with you, you should participate or respond.

What is a Summer Associate Salary?

Most firms who hire summers pro-rate their summers to the salary of a first-year associate. This means that during the 8-12 weeks the student works for the firm, she will be paid the same amount a first-year associate attorney makes during that time sans bonuses.

In some markets, that pay is as high as $215,000 annually. However, that number can vary by region, but a traditional summer association position will pro-rate at a salary of at least $100,000 per year on the low end.

It’s important to recognize that this is highly unusual, for two reasons:

1. Most Legal Employers do not Pay that Well

Depending on the market, practice area, and year in school, most legal employers pay an hourly rate of around $20 per hour.

That number will likely be lower for certain law firm practice areas, government employers, and public interest employers.

Many public interest and government employers do not pay students at all. Instead, these employers may have a program with your school by which you can earn credit for interning with the employer.

So it is important to realize that most law students do not make that kind of money, especially when only around 20% of a class receives a summer associate position.

2. Most Legal Employers do not Forecast their Hiring Needs that Far in Advance

Traditional summer associate programs create this idea that students should have their post-graduate plans solidified as early as possible.

The truth is most employers do not have the capacity to forecast their needs that far in advance, and it is a very risky way to conduct business. Large law firms are willing to take this risk because their business is vast and diversified, and they are competing for talent at the top of the class.

However, most employers do not hire for post-graduate positions until 3L year or after. Some employers won’t even hire until after bar results have been released.

How do Summer Associates Differ from Law Clerks, Interns, Externs, etc.?

Unfortunately, many of these terms are not well defined, which is why there is so much confusion about the different types of positions that are available to law students.

In addition, many employers are aware of the myths created by summer associate programs, like the myth that most employers hire as early as Big Law. So they’ll be cautious and use terms like “intern” when they probably actually mean “law clerk.”

So What is a Law Clerk?

The term”law clerk” generally refers to a law student who is working at a law firm or for another legal employer and getting paid.

Note that attorneys who work for a Federal Judge and many state-level judges are also called law clerks or judicial clerks, but if you are working for a judge during law school, you are an intern.

Then What is an Intern or Extern?

Again, there is no standard nomenclature here, but in general, legal “intern” or “extern” usually refers to someone who is working in an unpaid position, and they may or may not be receiving credit from their law school for the work performed.

Are Summer Associate Positions Available to 1Ls?

Sometimes, but rarely. Big Law summer associate positions are generally reserved for 2Ls, but some law firms set aside positions for 1L diverse candidates.

Like 2L summer associate programs, these positions are highly competitive and generally awarded to diverse applicants who have performed exceedingly well during their first semester of law school.

Non-diverse 1Ls are welcome to apply to Big Law Summer Associate Programs. And it is a good idea to do so because it can get you in front of important people early on and possibly lead to pre-OCI opportunities. However, it is unlikely, but not impossible, to obtain a summer associate position as a 1L, so you should not put all your eggs in the summer associate basket.

What to Expect During an Interview for a Summer Associate Position

I could dedicate pages and pages to this topic alone. Fortunately, at TGElsher.com, I have already begun to do so!

You can find a list of common OCI Questions here, and other posts about OCI can be found here.

I’ve also authored a series called the On-Campus Interview Success Series, which is currently available exclusively through Amazon. Each book (or chapter, as the book is being released by chapters so law students can pick and choose what they’d like to read) is only $0.99 or available to read for free to Kindle Unlimited Members.

In addition, please stay on the lookout for opportunities to work directly with me to prepare for OCI and forthcoming resources!

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