While the economy is starting to show signs of life, the legal profession is largely still looking for a pulse.
The upcoming internship season is a good indicator.
Career planning administrators at both of Wisconsin’s law schools said in the short term, firms have yet to indicate a return to traditional hiring practices. And some of Wisconsin’s biggest firms are cutting back on the number of interns they hire or, in one case, skipping the internship program entirely.
“This summer is expected to be the worst in history,” said Paul Katzman, Assistant Dean for Career Planning at Marquette Law School.
Quarles & Brady LLP, one of the state’s largest firms, announced last fall that it planned to suspend its 2010 summer internship program. At the time, firm officials said there was a possibility the program could be reinstated if the economy rebounded.
But executive committee member Kathryn M. Buono said a formal reconsideration never materialized and the firm decided to focus its attention on the new associates who joined the firm in January.
“We feel we have an obligation to the new first-year hires to provide work opportunities for them,” she said. “That is why we stuck with our decision.”
Last year, the firm had 22 students enrolled in its summer program. Even that was less than half of 2007’s class, which had 50 students.
While the suspension of summer programs allows firms to focus on keeping new associates busy, it could also create an internal talent void at firms going forward, said Kelly S. Conrardy, Director of Attorney Recruiting and Retention at Godfrey & Kahn SC.
“Those without programs or drastically reduced programs will have a big hole in the mid-associate range three, four or five years from now,” she said.
Godfrey & Kahn SC is offering a nine-week program starting in June 1, the same length as its 2009 internship, but a few weeks shorter than in previous years. The incoming class is also smaller with 12 this year, compared to 18 last year and 25 in 2008.
Katzman suggested firms that suspended their 2010 programs are principally looking toward 2011 and are not necessarily in a position to bring on new associates.
“They might be clearing the pipeline a little bit,” he said. “Each time they dipped into the pool, that was one more person in the pipeline.”
Buono said the firm’s decision to suspend its 2010 program was based on an assessment of existing capacity as well as projected need, both for this summer and in late 2011, when this summer’s associates would have started as entry level attorneys.
She said the firm has not made any decisions about next year’s program, but hopes to be able to reinstate it.
“In terms of expansion generally, notwithstanding the suspension of this year’s summer program, Quarles & Brady is still actively recruiting lateral attorneys who are able to expand our client base and expertise,” she said. “In fact, to that end, we just recently opened an office in Tampa with six partners and three associates.”
While other firms haven’t suspended their summer programs, they are sticking to the same approach as last year.
“Our philosophy is to hire as many second-year law students as we feel comfortable with and if they do good work, to make sure there is an opportunity for everyone,” Conrardy said. “What makes it difficult is hiring two years before someone joins us, so it’s not a perfect science.”
At this point, the firm has yet to tap into the third-year (3L) student market or even those graduates from last year who may still be unemployed.
But University of Wisconsin Law School Assistant Dean for Career Services Jane Heymann said a handful of larger firms have begun to seek 3Ls or recent graduates in job postings.
“I’m praying that firms get back into the 3L market,” she said. “If they are conservative in hiring for two years, at some point they are going to need more staff.”
With only five students enrolled in this summer’s internship program, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C. might do some third-year recruiting this year, said Recruiting Committee chair Albert S. Orr.
Last year the firm enrolled seven law students in its nine-week summer program.
“It would not surprise me if we found ourselves needing to do some third-year, on-campus recruiting this year,” he said. “But we have not made any decisions about that.”
Foley & Lardner LLP, which has more than 280 attorneys in Wisconsin, only has eight interns working out of the Milwaukee office this summer.
Managing partner Nancy J. Sennett is optimistic that the firm could increase its summer hiring in 2011 and it will make its annual recruiting visits this fall.
“Right now, we have not altered fall hiring plans at all,” she said. “I anticipate as we see some upturn in the economy, we will be again looking forward to a strong class for summer 2011 as we go into fall.”
Some firms such as Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek SC have not had the same kind of fluctuation in their summer internship classes.
The firm has five second-year (2L) students enrolled in this summer’s program, which is consistent with previous years, said Chief Executive Paul J. Eberle.
“At our level of activity it amounts to an adjustment of one or two people,” he said. “My sense is we were appropriately conservative on the ramp up and we therefore did not have to make a whole lot of the same adjustments as other firms that are going through turmoil.”
At the same time, Eberle said the firm is on the lookout for additional talent beyond what it recruits for summer internships.
As expected, the pool of available attorneys has grown since the economic downturn, which means employers can be more selective with who they hire.
“From the employer’s standpoint, in some ways it’s a good scenario because there is less recruiting and hiring than there was,” Eberle said. “For those of us still doing it, we’re getting to really the top, top talent out there.”
On the flip side, Katzman said in his experience firms are being cautious with how they advertise job openings, so as not to get bombarded with resumes.
“There is no question this is putting graduates in the class of 2010 in a very difficult position, along with the class of 2009 that is already out there,” he said. “There is a backlog right now.”
Jack Zemlicka can be reached at email@example.com.