Secret Worlds of Summer The Interns

No Objections Here

Amy Jenkins, left, and Stephanie Atkinson are at Steptoe &  Johnson. Jenkins is making $2,700 a week this summer  --  equivalent to $140,000 annually.
Amy Jenkins, left, and Stephanie Atkinson are at Steptoe & Johnson. Jenkins is making $2,700 a week this summer -- equivalent to $140,000 annually. (Susan Biddle - Twp)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

As we ponder the mysteries of the universe in this languid season, our reveries are interrupted by the distant buzz of energy and industry.

Oh, of course: The interns are here. They descend with the heat, work up a frenzy, then depart. At Washington law firms, they are appropriately called "summers." This year, the summers are summering on sky-high salaries.

The Metro summer series continues.

Upstairs at the Kennedy Center's Roof Terrace Restaurant & Bar, the guests were finishing their complimentary dinner of grilled chicken, chocolate-cinnamon creme brulee and white wine. Their custom-made menus -- imprinted with "Steptoe & Johnson LLP: When Experience Matters" in a grandiose font -- lay folded by their plates. Floor-to-ceiling, two-story-high windows offered a Masters of the Universe ambience.

Orchestra seats for "The Phantom of the Opera" awaited downstairs.

Between spoonfuls and sips, Amy Jenkins considered her fortune. She's pulling down $2,700 a week this summer, the equivalent of about $140,000 a year -- all as a 24-year-old summer "associate" or, in more common terminology, intern. Her last serious job was working as a camp counselor in North Carolina.

"I definitely feel like a grown-up for the first time, because it's the first real responsible type of job I've had, as opposed to taking girls out to the river," she said, flanked by two tables of twentysomething contemporaries.

There has been no better time to inhabit the stratosphere of law firm summer associates than now. With a domino effect, some of Washington's elite firms have been boosting salaries over the past several months as they compete for a talent pool that is not expanding as rapidly as the caseloads. Prominent firms have hit a controversial high: about $3,100 a week for summer associates, or what would be just over $160,000 a year for fresh law school graduates. Perks are plentiful and full-time job offers all but guaranteed.

"I feel like I deserve it," said Vincenza Battaglia, 25, a rising third-year law student summering at Steptoe & Johnson. "We work really hard in law school."

But there's a backlash. Chief Justice John Roberts, senior congressional leaders and the past president of the D.C. Bar all have groused about salaries for young lawyers. James J. Sandman, past president of the D.C. Bar, wrote on the organization's Web site in March that the "astronomical" salaries "will do nothing to give associates greater responsibility, more rewarding work, better training, or increased access to mentors." And the Senate last month introduced a bill seeking a 50 percent raise for federal judges in part because new lawyers in private practice often earn more than powerful judges.

Summer associates -- knighted as "summers" and never called "interns" within their subculture -- have total market control. Demand is bigger than supply: Even though the number of graduates from the top 25 law schools has remained steady for years, the number of law firm openings has climbed, according to legal specialists.

"As the economy gets bigger and bigger, there's more of a demand for legal services," said Bruce McLean, chairman and partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, quickly adding that the cost of increasing salaries does not get passed directly on to clients. "We've had rate increases for clients in years where there's been no salary increases," he said.

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