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Supply-and-Demand Has Top Law Firms' 'Summer Associates' Hitting Pay Dirt Without Breaking Much of a Sweat

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.

About 78 percent of entry-level associates nationwide leave their firm within five years, according to the National Association for Law Placement's Foundation for Law Career Research and Education. Some take prestigious jobs with the government, and others get frustrated that it's hard to make partner and get a share of firm revenue, said James G. Leipold, NALP's executive director.

"Folks leave to take what they perceive to be better offers because the economy is good," Leipold said. "Others are fleeing because they find the demands too onerous -- it's a tough way to make money."

Indeed, budding lawyers say they spend much of their office time looking for better deals. They peruse such Web sites as Above the Law, a must-read legal blog written by David Lat, a former federal prosecutor in Newark and former co-editor of the Wonkette politics and media blog.

One of Above the Law's scoops this month was headlined "WilmerHale Summers: Where's Our Raise?" The blog published an e-mail from an anonymous summer associate in the Boston office who complained that the summers weren't getting the customary pro-rated weekly equivalent of first-year associates. Instead of about $3,100 a week ($160,000 a year), the tipster wrote, they were getting only $2,800 (about $145,000 a year).

"What the heck? . . . We're a little miffed," the aggrieved summer associate dashed off . "It's not only irritating for the wilmer summers, but its also somewhat embarrassing knowing that the small boston firms many of us shirked in order to pursue the bigger paycheck (and bigger loan-killer) are actually paying more than a purported big law firm."

The firm's Washington office perhaps avoided a blog-lashing by bumping up its associates' salaries in midsummer after learning that other firms were paying more. And the firm made the raises retroactive.

"No one is going to choose to come here simply for the sake of the last dollar," said Craig Goldblatt, a partner at the Washington office of WilmerHale. Still, he added, the firm raised summer associates' salaries because "we are committed to be at or near the top of the market once we understand that's what the market is paying."

Does the WilmerHale tipster have a right to be disgruntled? Well, avarice may not be the simple cause: For the academic year 2005-06, students from public university law schools owed an average of $54,509. Those from private schools: $83,181.

Even though a job offer at the end of the summer is pretty much a lock for everyone, summer associates still work the social and professional angles with the eagerness of college freshmen rushing a fraternity or sorority. They lunch with the firm's lawyers to sniff out which high-profile cases they can get in on, or they cozy up to partners who need help with research for a lecture or an article.

But some concede that the events can be awkward -- especially if they're not genuinely interested in a private practice career and are more into freeloading.

"A lot of them are just interested in having a good time, because when you're a summer associate, you don't get much real work," said AboveTheLaw's Lat. "When they show up for real, there will be plenty of work, so they might as well enjoy it now."

Indeed, it is a summer filled with glass-clinking and schmoozing. "Summers" sail on the Chesapeake. They go-cart in Virginia. They bowl at Strike Bethesda. They get taken out for lunch by mentors. Or they head to the company suite at Verizon Center.

"It's like grown-up summer camp," said Felicia Carter, 25, a Steptoe summer associate, riding in a bus on her way to the Kennedy Center for dinner and the "Phantom" performance. "My friends are jealous."

But many summer associates say working on real cases -- as opposed to luxuriating in all the freebies -- is what makes the summer compelling. "I've worked on a tax project, a litigation project and a government contract project," Carter added.

Steven Schulman, a partner at Akin Gump, said that a few weeks ago, he e-mailed the summer associates asking if anyone wanted to help him file a petition to free an asylum seeker detained in New Jersey on allegations that he had provided financial support to a Sri Lankan rebel group. It was a Thursday night, and the associates were at the Christian Heurich mansion -- "The Brewmaster's Castle," the historic Victorian mansion of the late German beermaker -- near Dupont Circle.

"They must have been on their BlackBerrys, because I got three e-mails before the party was over," Schulman said. "So I had one summer associate write up the motion for preliminary injunction, another figured out how you file a lawsuit without using the plaintiff's name and the third one revised the entire petition. I was getting e-mails from them past midnight."

The high-priced work of the summers ultimately paid off. Schulman said that government prosecutors told him recently that their client will be released any day.

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