Kathryn E. Brown
CHARLESTON -- Many of the country's largest law firms are dedicating more of their marketing efforts to associate recruitment than to client development.
In many firms, the talent search begins during the vacation of a student's first year in law school. However, some clerks leave their summer jobs feeling they learned more about how attorneys live rather than how they practice law.
Aggressive public relations campaigns are now part of the work required to secure top legal talent. Clerkships are often described as opportunities to work on complicated projects with firm masterminds while socializing with A-rate clients.
Recruitment committee leaders in this region appear to be more careful in their proposals, stressing that the summer experience will be a glimpse of what life is like in their firm.
Kara Cunningham is the chairperson of Steptoe and Johnson's recruiting committee. She explained that her firm's goal is to give summer law clerks experience in three general areas: learning about the practice of law, getting to know firm lawyers, and becoming familiar with the surrounding community.
"An important part of the summer program is giving our clerks insight into what life as a practicing attorney would be like," she said. "Our law clerks work directly with supervising attorneys on projects such as assisting with trial preparation and witness interviews, drafting motions and pleadings, preparing written discovery, and crafting technical legal documents."
Some clerks reported in legal journals and related surveys that the majority of their continued training involved legal writing, research, and proofreading, tasks that they found uninteresting. Locally, greater efforts are made to make experiences more stimulating for clerks.
"Associates work with more senior attorneys and are provided the opportunity to handle increasingly more sophisticated work as their skills develop," stated Beth Walker, a partner in the Charleston office of Bowles, Rice, McDavid, Graff and Love. "Associates frequently report that they have more direct contact with clients in their early years of work than their law school classmates working at other firms," she claimed.
Routine assignments are handed down to summer associates simply because they aren't yet trained to handle the more laborious projects that other lawyers receive. Aside from the intellectual component of practicing law, there is the issue of students lacking confidence in their newly formed abilities.
However, at the root of all criticism regarding the lower-profile projects delegated to summer clerks is the fact that they aren't allowed to do much more than improving existing skills and shadowing others.
"Summer associates have an experience at JK which largely mirrors that of a full-time associate," said Rob Aliff, the member in charge of running the clerkship program at Jackson Kelly this year. "Students are not members of the Bar, so their activities are certainly limited by that fact," he argued.
Steve Crislip, the firm's general counsel, referred to the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct to explain the restrictions on hands-on experience.
"The bottom line is that only a lawyer who has passed the West Virginia Bar may practice law here, unless they have a limited admission from another state, or are under a special court rule, like law students being authorized to do pro bono work for indigents under the direct supervision of a lawyer," he explained. "Accordingly, law clerks are limited and cannot do anymore than a legal assistant could do with regard to clients or the public, until they have passed the Bar exam."
If some critics consider the work to be dull, then the parties are destined to be memorable experiences. Nearly every firm of larger size hosts numerous social functions throughout the summer months to entertain guest associates.
Steptoe and Johnson's Web site listed a welcome reception, cooking class, baseball game, progressive dinner, camping trip, theatre outings, and numerous cook-outs as part of their clerkship program. Students are encouraged to enjoy the quality of life offered by the state and the firm.
"Most weeks offer opportunity to broaden our legal education, meet attorneys and staff, or just wind down and have fun," remarked Chris Ferro, a third-year law student at West Virginia University. Hailing from McMechen, W.Va., Ferro enjoys the atmosphere of Steptoe's training program.
"We are not required to attend, but for a socialite like me, the summer is full of events to attend and build relationships with attorneys and staff," he said.
The entertainment element of student training plays a key role in the summer agenda, law firm marketers argue. Networking opportunities within the firm allow students to learn the history of the organization and to meet lawyers housed in other office locations and practice groups.
Social interaction allows more seasoned lawyers to share advice and contacts with up and comers. Informal gatherings also give students a view of the law firm as a business, which is an asset to those who want to learn about management as well as their intended practice area.
"We believe we have struck a balance between professional excellence and our personal lives that is not always available to lawyers in firms of our size," Beth Walker expressed.
A summer clerkship program is an important part of law firm recruitment and marketing. Decision makers claim that the experience is not designed to make summer associates compete for permanent positions, but the way in which a student tackles the ordinary is of interest to some of them.
As Rob Aliff concluded, "At the end of the day, we do make offers based on our overall impression of the student's legal abilities as well as their fit with Jackson Kelly."
Kathryn E. (Katy) Brown is a former law firm executive and is now the managing member of The Write Word, LLC, a professional writing and editing agency. She can be reached by calling (304) 444-4248, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.