New program engages law students in task of generating new business
Summer associates at Cohen & Grigsby who are working on a new project to learn law firm business development are, from left, Andrea Bottorff, a student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law; Alex Lacey, of the University of Michigan School of Law; Julie Patter, of the University of Virginia School of Law; and Aman Kakar, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
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At Downtown firm Cohen & Grigsby, seven law school students working as summer associates are getting a taste for the skills that lawyers need, beyond how to write legal briefs and conduct case discovery.
A program launched this year immerses the summer associates in what it takes to generate new business -- often a key determinant for long-term success in private practice.
When they started work in May, each associate was assigned an existing firm client and then paired with a firm director or partner who works closely with that client. Through intense research and collaboration with the director, the associates have been learning about the clients' needs and analyzing how Cohen & Grigsby might broaden its legal services for the client.
At the end of the summer, each associate will deliver a presentation on what new business opportunities the firm might possibly pitch.
"It's something they don't learn in law school and a vital component of our practice and the business of running a law firm," said Lisa Stauffer, attorney and coordinator for the summer associate program.
As new law school grads face one of the tightest job markets in decades, the firm's business development project could well give its student participants a slight edge -- or at least deeper awareness of what it takes to be a lawyer -- when they face the hunt for a permanent job in a year or two.
The class of 2010 entered the toughest job market since the mid-1990s, according to a June report from the National Association for Law Placement. Employment among the 2010 graduates nine months after graduation stood at 87.6 percent, the association said, the lowest rate since 1996 when it was 87.4 percent.
During the past two decades, the rate peaked at 91.9 percent in 2007.
Among the reasons the law placement association cited for the employment decline among last year's grads was a cutback in summer associate programs at large law firms nationwide in 2008 and 2009 -- years when the recession and economic collapse saw many firms scale back or eliminate summer hiring. Firms traditionally offer full-time, permanent positions to some law students who work for them in summer programs.
The law placement association does not project conditions to be much better in the coming year for the graduating class of 2011, either.
"It took till 1997 for the market to come back after the 1991 recession, and the consensus now is that big law firms aren't going to go back to hiring like they did before," James Leipold, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based association, told the American Law Daily.
Besides a drop in hiring, median salaries also fell for the class of 2010, the association said.
The national median salary for members of the class with a full-time job was $63,000, down almost 13 percent from $72,000 for the class of 2009.
"Aggregate starting salaries fell because graduates found fewer jobs with the high-paying large law firms and many more jobs with the smallest law firms, those that pay the lowest starting salaries," Mr. Leipold said.
Cohen & Grigsby, with about 130 attorneys in Pittsburgh and one office in Florida, hired four associates from last year's summer class to join the firm this fall.
"We have a vibrant program and it has not shrunk since last year," Ms. Stauffer said. "It really focuses on quality, not quantity."
At Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, with about 500 attorneys and government relations personnel in 16 offices, nine members of the class of 2010 were hired as full-time associates, including three who worked in the Pittsburgh office in summer 2009.
The firm hired seven attorneys from the graduating class of 2011, including four who were summer associates last year at various Buchanan offices.
In Pittsburgh this summer, Buchanan has five summer associates.
Jim Newell, partner and chairman of the firm's associates program, said Buchanan's summer program was reduced during the economic downturn. Before Buchanan Ingersoll merged with Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling in 2006, it was not uncommon for the firms to employ a combined 30 summer associates, Mr. Newell said.
"Those were sort of the glory days of the summer program."
Although the program has shrunk, "it's important to have young lawyers engaged in the culture of the firm," he said. "Even if there are fewer of them."
One place where the summer program has grown since last year is Reed Smith, the Pittsburgh-based firm with 1,600 attorneys in 23 offices worldwide.
Its summer program in the U.S. doubled this year, to 40 associates from 20 in 2010. Firm officials were not available to comment on the huge jump in summer hires.
Of the 20 who worked last summer, 18 received and accepted job offers to join as associates this year, including four in Pittsburgh.
This summer, the firm has six summer associates in Pittsburgh, up from four a year ago.
First Published August 1, 2011 12:00 am