Summer bummer for associates; law firms cooled recruitment

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

For some law students, summer is no time to hit the beach. It’s time to hit Big Law as summer associates. But COVID-19 mucked that up.

Law firms didn’t recruit nearly as aggressively as in years past for 2021 summer associate positions. Many were leery of a pandemic-fueled recession and acted accordingly, according to recent surveys done by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).

“Amidst the pandemic interruptions and uncertainties there was an overall net decline in recruiting activity,” said NALP Executive Director James G. Leipold. “Schools reported fewer employers interviewing students for summer programs and law firms reported recruiting at fewer campuses for summer programs, and both median and average offer numbers fell.”

However, Leipold was impressed that the system managed to move on, albeit in a different fashion.

He noted that some of the recruitment numbers rivaled the low points following the Great Recession but “by flexing hard and leaning into a new timeline and new technology, large law firms and law schools were able to complete the annual dance of recruitment, offer, and acceptance, despite the syncopated rhythm that must have felt at times a bit like a game of musical chairs.”

NALP had to be nimble too. The most recent data does not come from its traditional reporting efforts. The biggest change was that it had to use different survey timeframes, given how recruitment didn’t follow a normal cycle.

The most striking finding was the above-mentioned drop in recruitment and how severe it was. According to NALP:

  • Over three-quarters (76%) of law schools reported a decline of 5% or more in the number of employers participating in OCI (in-person or virtually) for summer 2021 as compared to summer 2020.

And offers fell too:

  • Overall, the median number of offers extended by offices/firms to second-year students for summer 2021 programs was 8 offers, down from a median of 11 offers for summer 2020.

Students did not mull over offers:

  • Students responded more swiftly to summer program offers this year. For summer 2021, firms received about 70% of offer responses within 14 days. For summer 2020, just 52% of responses were received in this same timeframe.

And, not surprisingly, virtual efforts ruled the day:

  • For summer 2021, 53% of offices/firms planned to host an entirely virtual summer program, 34% planned a hybrid program with some in-person and some virtual components, 8% planned to host an entirely in-person program, and 5% had not yet determined their program format at the time of the survey. In summer 2020, 86% of all summer programs were virtual.

Interestingly, the weaker law firm recruitment efforts came right before a surge in demand for more legal services and lawyers. A predicted drop-off spurred by the pandemic did not occur.

Leipold said: “Many large law firms reported significant revenue and profit gain figures for 2020, though at the onset of the pandemic there was considerable uncertainty about what the demand for legal services would be and how deeply the pandemic-recession would affect law firm bottom lines, which may account for some of the conservative approach firms seemed to have taken in shaping summer 2021 programs.”

He noted nearly all the 2020-21 recruiting cycle numbers need an asterisk or footnote to explain that they are not comparable to the data in the years that preceded 2020, or the years that follow.