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Firms look to third-year law students during recruiting season

WLJ illustration by Vicki Wanserski

WLJ illustration by Vicki Wanserski

Law firms have traditionally ignored recruiting third-year law students in favor of making offers to summer associates.

One firm is making a drastic departure from that practice.

Starting next fall, Nashville, Tenn. firm Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis LLP will abandon its summer internships and offer a six-week fall apprenticeship program for third-year students as a prelude to a permanent hire after graduation.

The 190-attorney firm will post job openings in July, followed by interviews in August. In September, students will begin the mostly virtual program, which includes one weekend retreat, for which they will be paid $10,000.

Offers are then made on Oct. 14, the last day of the program, a departure from the traditional recruiting process where 2L summer associates are offered a job prior to their third year.

“Recruiting two years out is not very helpful for us or any law firm,” said Kathleen Pearson, Director of Professional Recruiting for Waller. “We can’t predict what clients will need and in what practice areas.”

With the unpredictable economy making it difficult to accurately predict just how many lawyers firms will need two years down the road, some Wisconsin firms are also looking at third-year law students as a more viable option.

Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren plans to hire nine attorneys next fall and four or five of those are expected to be current third-year students, said managing partner Jerome M. Janzer.

He said the firm is in the process of interviewing 3Ls for those positions.

“Typically, we will do all our hiring from our summer program, but we anticipate a greater need and are in the market for several third years,” Janzer said. “It’s unusual for us, but we are definitely finding some attractive candidates.”

But old habits are hard to break. Not all firms are diving into the 3L pool.

Kara Nelson, Foley & Lardner’s National Director of Legal Recruiting, said the firm dabbles in the 3L market as needed, but doesn’t plan to revamp its recruiting program to focus on third-year students.

“We kind of counter the long-term hiring projections by being more conservative in our summer associate program numbers so we make sure we get everyone in the door,” she said. “If we have to go out in the third year market, we do that.”

The 3L market will likely remain a “secondary source” for recruiting, said Nelson, and the firm will continue to groom its summer associate classes for the bulk of the permanent positions.

For Quarles & Brady,  which suspended its 2010 summer program, the third-year market could be a resource for filling potential job openings next year, said Chief Human Resources Officer Mark K. Arnberg.

“We would selectively look to that market to fill needs,” she said. “But we don’t have any specific program this fall targeting 3Ls.”

Milwaukee Young Lawyer’s Association President Steven C. McGaver said he would rather have a job lined up after the third year of law school than after the first or second. With firms scaling back or eliminating summer programs in recent years as well as deferring start dates for associates, early job offers are subject to change, especially in an unstable economy.

“In the current economy, I would understand why a firm would want to switch to a 3L recruiting policy,” said McGaver, of Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown.

McGaver suspected that time will tell whether more firms shift away from traditional recruiting programs, but he sees the benefit for 3Ls.

“The good part is you are jumping into a job that can hopefully help pay off student loans and eventually live on that job,” he said.

The firms also stand to benefit by being able to choose from better candidates. Pearson said third-year students have become a more viable option since the economy has meant fewer receive multiple job offers to consider before their final year of law school.

That has led to a plethora of applications from top-tier students looking for work.

“The caliber of 3L resumes that come across my desk is unbelievable,” Pearson said. “I see a 3L from Harvard and ask ‘how is this person on the market?'”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

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