YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
By BRANDT GOLDSTEIN
A major Washington, D.C. law firm, Howrey Simon Arnold & White, has announced that it will junk its traditional summer associate program -- a cushy, all-expenses-paid-blow-off vacation during which prospective young lawyers stuff themselves at downtown steakhouses for lunch and spend their evenings at Orioles games or cruising the Potomac on a floating restaurant.
The traditional program at a big firm is all fun and just about no work, with the "summers" expected to complete just a few small research assignments over a couple of months. Assuming a person does a reasonable job on her research memos and doesn't drink herself too silly at one of the many free dinners, her reward is a $125,000 a year job as a corporate slave after she finishes law school.
Howrey's big concern about the standard summer fling is that it doesn't give students a real taste of big-firm lawyerdom. Summer associates at D.C. firms enjoy plenty of overpriced Caesar salads and nights at the theatre, but when they return as freshly minted graduates, they find the drudgery and long hours too much to bear. And they flee after a couple of years.
Howrey's grand plan: Boot Camp, a four-week immersion in the world of big firm practice, with long, intense days and an avalanche of work. In short: let 'em see the real thing up front. Truth in advertising.
It may come as a surprise to major law firms, but this has been the approach in other fields for some time now. Take medicine. At most Washington area hospitals, residents are expected to treat patients. No endless rounds of Foggy Bottom Ale at the Old Ebbitt. No all-day golf outings in Potomac. No wine tastings at the Hotel Washington rooftop bar. Instead, medical residents are asked to put on a white coat and walk around with a clipboard, meeting sick people and trying to make them better.
The head of one major hospital explained, "We want our residents to get a better feel for what it's like to be a doctor." (Washington is on the cutting edge, and not every city has followed suit. Word has it that in Boston, Mass General still sponsors drunken bowling outings and wild "Polynesian weekends" on the Cape.)
The new métier verité has found its way into other fields as well. Microsoft actually expects its interns to do programming. And several major architecture firms long ago put an end to the weekly clambakes and required summer employees to help out on overdue projects.
Does it make sense for Howrey to follow these other professions? Absolutely not. Private law firm practice has a lower job satisfaction rating than just about any other type of work out there, flipping burgers aside (and I've heard associates fantasize about running Taco Bell's takeout window). People in other professions might like what they do, but summer associates have already figured out what law firm life is like: nasty and brutish -- and therefore, short.
Most law graduates go to a firm because it's the path of least resistance and they need help paying off their colossal school loans ($75,000 is par for the course). No law student seriously thinks that July's wining and dining will continue when they return. If that were the case, they'd all leave right after they started full-time. But that rarely happens.
Typical associates hang around for two or three years, by which time they've made a dent in their debt and learned what it's like to be a lawyer at a top firm. And for most, that's enough. They want out. The truth is, and likely always will be, that associates leave because big-firm practice is extremely stressful and neither especially interesting nor a lot of fun. Emphasizing this ugly fact, as Howrey plans to do, is no way to ensure that they stick around.