Summer associates disappeared fast from this law firm, and that's not unusual

Derek Muller served as a summer associate with the Big Law firm of Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago in 2006, one of 70 law school students to get the plum positions, which nearly always lead to job offers.

Fast-forward 13 years …

Just four are still with the firm. Only two have made partner. The other 64?  Well, we know that Muller is a law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law in Santa Monica, Calif., who also writes a blog, Excess of Democracy.

In a recent posting, “What happens to a summer associate class at a large law firm after a decade?” he noted how he had kept track of the attrition of his fellow associates over the years.

He was able to do because he and other associates got a Facebook of everyone across the firm, he wrote on his blog.

He also noted how quickly the attrition happened:

“In 2011, I looked through the facebook at who was at the firm and who’d left — of course, some never came back after that summer (I know a few who took jobs elsewhere even after receiving an offer), and the financial crisis exerted significant pressure on many of my colleagues. But by March 2011, there were just 26 associates from that summer class who were working at the firm.”

By 2015, the number had fallen to eight.

And now, as noted, there are six.

Muller didn’t draw any conclusions other to note that it “provides some perspective for those who are participating in OCI this year to think about what life in a decade (or 12 or 13 years…) might look like. It's probably typical of many law firms: there’s simply a lot of movement these days.”

Muller’s post didn’t surprise one expert in law firm hiring — James Leipold, the executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).

“The blog post is right – there is a lot of movement out there,” he said. “Lawyers leave law firms to do all sorts of things all the time – they move to other law firms, they go in-house, they leave for government jobs, and they leave law for non-legal work in every sector.”

Summer associates positions used to be more plentiful, but they took a hit during the recession. In 2018, it was estimated that there were 1,000 fewer summer associate positions compared to before the recession, according to a NALP report called Perspectives on 2018 Law Student Recruiting.

However, most of the larger firms have built their summer associates’ programs back up to pre-recession levels, Leipold said.

The competition to land the positions is stiff because of the job offers that normally follow. “Summer associate positions are still the best way to get a job in a large law firm, and offer rates coming out of summer programs in 2018 were 97%, so almost all summer associates get an offer to come back,” Leipold noted. And 88% take those jobs, statistics show.

Before the recession, the percent of those accepting jobs was between 73 and 77%. It appears that recent grads are taking a-bird-in-the-hand approach when it comes to job offers. But if Muller’s observations are any indication, they’ll be looking soon enough for other options.

And that’s not a negative, Leipold said. “Many associates leave to do other exciting things, and increasingly that includes a wide range of options in-house with corporate legal departments.”