Summer associate programs are often a law student’s first glimpse at what working in a law firm is like. And while the experience of writing legal memos and doing research might be the same regardless of whether it’s at home or the office, other aspects of firm life, such as networking and mentorship, are harder to replicate.
The challenges caused by COVID-19 forced law firms to think outside the box when designing this year’s summer programs. Two Denver firms adapted to introduce summer clerks and associates to law firm life, and plan to keep some of the changes in the future.
PODS AND PARTNER MEETINGS
Davis Graham & Stubbs held a six-week, totally remote summer associate program that ran from June 22 through July 31. Five summer associates — four 2Ls and one 1L — participated in the program, which is pretty typical of the class size in normal years, according to Emily Sheldon, professional development and recruiting manager at DGS.
During typical summers, DGS draws distinct lines when it comes to summer associate work assignments, with law students hired directly into specific departments.
Three of this year’s summer associates were hired for the firm’s finance and acquisitions department and two were hired for the trial department. But the firm decided to blur the lines a bit this summer, according to Sheldon, allowing summer associates to do a mix of work and get both transactional and litigation experience.
To help everyone handle the lack of face-to-face contact, the firm’s associates were grouped into “pods” of 5-6 people with varying levels of experience and practice backgrounds.
These peer-to-peer mentoring groups held virtual meet-ups, such as lunches and happy hours. According to Sheldon, the associate pods were a highlight of the summer, and the firm plans to use the idea in non-pandemic years.
“I think that the pod get-togethers were a surprising silver lining. I think that was something that everybody, from the associates to the summer associates, really enjoyed, and it wasn’t something that we had tried before,” she said. “So we will definitely be doing that in years to come.”
“It was a really nice way for them to get to meet every single associate at the firm in kind of a streamlined way.”
The firm also arranged meetings with partner supervisors at least once a week, weekly check-ins with Sheldon and regular trainings on research, litigation and transactional topics to help summer associates feel integrated into the firm.
“We tried to be pretty thoughtful about giving them social interactions online,” Sheldon said. “We also didn’t want to overload them, so we tried to put a pretty critical eye toward the interactions that would be the highest impact for them.”
In addition to their regular meetings, summer associates did a tour of virtual coffees and lunches with all the partners at the firm. Associate mentors helped identify which partners a summer associate should meet, such as department heads, partners with strong mentoring abilities and those in specialty areas.
“It was really amazing to see how resilient our summer associates were. They were handed a summer that none of them were anticipating, and I think they really made the most of it and still treated it exactly how they should,” Sheldon said. “Everybody just really stepped up to the plate, and I think they still got everything out of it that they should have.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION?
This summer, 19 summer clerks were assigned to six of Holland & Hart’s offices, with 10 working for the Denver and Boulder offices. But with most people working remotely, the clerks’ location assignment didn’t mean what it used to.
“I felt like I didn’t really associate certain clerks with certain offices because everything was virtual, and we had so much more interaction with all of them across the firm… which I think is actually a good thing,” said Holland & Hart partner Matt Abell. “I don’t get as much exposure to the non-Denver clerks in a normal year.”
“We had summer clerks developing strong relationships with the other attorneys in a way that we normally wouldn’t simply because of where people are geographically,” added Kevin McAdam, an associate at the firm and chair of this year’s summer clerk committee.
Some of the summer clerks who worked for the firm’s Colorado offices have never lived in the state, having completed their clerkships from far-flung locales including New York, Washington, D.C. and South Bend, Indiana. A few of the out-of-state clerks were disappointed they wouldn’t be spending their summer in Colorado, McAdam said, but the virtual nature of the program also allowed students to spend time with family in other locations.
To help with networking, the firm’s recruiting and professional development staff organized virtual events for summer clerks and attorneys to attend, regardless of location. These remote meet-ups included scavenger hunts, trivia nights, an online cooking class and a “paint along” inspired by PBS legend Bob Ross.
McAdam said holding social events remotely had the unexpected effect of fostering more personal connections, as significant others were more likely to join the web-based get-togethers and children could be seen running around in the background. “There was a real personal feel to being able to see the other person’s house… they get to experience a little bit of your life,” McAdam said. “So I think some of those connections were deeper.”
With travel and trials on hold, attorneys who have not typically been involved in summer clerk events were more involved in this year’s program. “Because we were doing everything virtually,” Abell said, “we found that attorneys who traditionally kind of stay in their caves during the summer came out virtually and participated in a lot of the program.”
The firm’s summer clerk programs ran for five weeks this year, rather than the typical 10 weeks. The shorter timeline forced some changes that McAdam and Abell said they hope to continue in future years. Attorneys exchanged videos with the summer clerks well in advance of their start dates to get a head start on introducing them to firm life. “I think it ended up improving, in a lot of ways, the way we onboard and integrate the clerks,” Abell said. “And I think we’re going to carry that forward.”
They also changed how they evaluate clerks, who in typical years would have a mid-summer evaluation. “We just knew that wasn’t going to work this time, because it just wouldn’t make sense to do it two weeks into the program,” McAdam said. Instead, the firm gave real-time feedback. When a clerk finished a project, the assigning attorney would be prompted to complete an evaluation, which would then be sent to the clerk and the firm’s recruitment staff.
“It was helpful for them to be able to see on a rolling basis how they were doing and is something that we’re going to look at in terms of implementing going forward, irrespective of the length of the program,” McAdam said.
According to McAdam, this year’s program has resulted in clerks “enthusiastically” accepting job offers, even if they didn’t get to spend their weekends in the mountains. “It’s easy to sell Colorado to a kid from the East Coast because it’s such a wonderful place to live,” he said.
“We weren’t really able to do that this year, and the fact that folks were jazzed about the program and are already accepting offers speaks loudly about how well the virtual program went.”