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Legal Practice Management

Practice Innovations: The evolution of the summer program during the pandemic

Erin R. McClernon, Esq.  Manager / Attorney Development / Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart

· 7 minute read

Erin R. McClernon, Esq.  Manager / Attorney Development / Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart

· 7 minute read

A robust summer program builds top talent from entry-level ranks, supports brand-building, and elevates a firm’s profile. Positive social media posts and word-of-mouth about the summer program enhance the firm’s reputation and keep it top of mind for candidates — even in a tight market.

— Brittney Padilla (Attorney Recruiting Manager, Ogletree Deakins)

After a tumultuous few years in which law firms quickly pivoted their summer program plans to meet the demands of an unrelenting pandemic, firms have discovered effective new ways to host summer associates that blend the past with the present, while looking toward the future.

Practice Innovations spoke with a group of law firm summer program leaders — Brittney Padilla, Attorney Recruiting Manager for Ogletree Deakins; Jessica Pixler, Director of Attorney Recruiting at Stinson LLP; and Melissa Berry, Director of Professional Development & Diversity at Lane Powell — about the recent evolution of summer programs and how experimentation, flexibility, and a focus on interpersonal connection can lead to fantastic results.

Practice Innovations: Has the size of your summer program changed in the last few years?

Brittney Padilla: In 2020, we did not host a formal summer program. In 2021, we hosted 21 summer associates across 15 offices. This year our program more than doubled, with 45 summers across 23 of our 53 offices. We expect that trend to continue.

Jessica Pixler: Our summer program size is based on our practice divisions’ projected needs. Our 2021 summer was smaller, but for 2022 we returned to a size typical of our pre-Covid classes.

Melissa Berry: As a midsize firm, our program is smaller, usually about four students. In 2020, we held a virtual program with six summers.

Practice Innovations: How are you balancing hybrid work with the need for in-person interaction this year?

Brittney Padilla: Our firm has a “three days in office, two days flexible” work schedule. Summers follow that same schedule unless the local office decides more in-office time is needed. While in-person interaction is very important, summers also benefit from doing business virtually, which is much more commonplace today.

Jessica Pixler: Stinson’s summer associates are in the office Tuesday through Thursday and can work remotely or in-office Monday and Friday. Attorneys are encouraged to follow a similar schedule to facilitate planned and spontaneous in-person interactions.

Melissa Berry: Our summer associates are hybrid, with most in-office Monday through Thursday. However, because there is no known threshold for the right amount of in-person interaction, we allow individuals to customize and structure their workday and environment to best suit them. This benefits everyone, particularly individuals who are neurodiverse. We also have an open-calendar system that allows people to book in-person or virtual coffee chats.

Practice Innovations: Over the last three summers, what major adaptations did you make to your summer program?

Brittney Padilla: Previously, our local offices guided the summer associate experience. Now our focus is on creating an experience that celebrates local office culture while also fostering connection and belonging across offices. We host virtual events, use word-cloud polling technology to personalize virtual sessions, and recently debuted a summer associate portal on our intranet. There, summers can access information about their fellow classmates along with resources such as previously-recorded associate trainings and our dedicated Well-Being in Law Portal.

Jessica Pixler: We took every facet of our program (mentoring, socializing, completing assignments) virtual; and then, this year, built a hybrid system that capitalizes on the best parts of both virtual and in-person engagement. With our Director of Well-Being, we also incorporate programs, resources, techniques, and guidance to enhance our summers’ well-being throughout law school and into practice.

Melissa Berry: Our program now is more intentional about offering structured classroom and experiential opportunities to connect and learn. We also improved our feedback loop, which helps us evaluate and make micro-adjustments to the program as we go. Hybrid is likely here to stay.

Practice Innovations: Do you think the adaptations you’ve made will remain or is the goal to get back to what your summer program looked like originally?

Brittney Padilla: We’ve adapted our program to produce positive results for the long term, so it would not make sense to go back to the way it was pre-pandemic. We will keep what works in terms of providing summer associates a superb experience that meets their expectations while continually exploring new ways to make their time with us special and meaningful.

Jessica Pixler: The goal of our summer program will always be to provide a realistic picture of life as an associate. As long as our associates are working a hybrid schedule, our summer program will likely provide hybrid opportunities, too.

Melissa Berry: Other than transitioning from being fully virtual to hybrid, the adaptations will remain because they make our program stronger and more resilient.

Practice Innovations: How has what summer associates look for in a summer program changed in the last few years?

Brittney Padilla: With many firms operating under a hybrid model, summer associates are now, more than ever, looking for quality mentorship and training along with collegial cultures that foster connection.

Jessica Pixler: Summers have an increased interest in understanding and experiencing firm culture.

Melissa Berry: Summers are looking for more flexibility in how they work. They also crave more experiential opportunities and a sense of belonging.

Practice Innovations: What does “providing a realistic experience” to summers look like in today’s world?

Brittney Padilla: A realistic experience today might include activities such as virtual hearings or depositions, in addition to in-person events that are both substantive and interpersonal. It also includes guidance on how to have an effective online presence.

Jessica Pixler: We emphasize real-world projects, frequent contact with associate mentors, and a hybrid work schedule to produce a realistic experience.

Melissa Berry: A realistic experience includes learning to adapt real-world assignments to meet client preferences and needs, understanding basics about the business of law, and working in a hybrid model.

Practice Innovations: Are you doing anything particularly memorable or new this summer to celebrate the world opening back up?

Brittney Padilla: In addition to Pride Month and Juneteenth activities, Ogletree Deakins hosted an in-person three-day Associate and Of Counsel Forum in Chicago that our summer associates attended as well. They participated in the full array of programming, including presentations from firm leadership, numerous developmental opportunities, networking events, and a special summer associate reception.

Jessica Pixler: Stinson’s 2022 Diversity Week featured programming on how to be inclusive in an evolving legal work environment. We are also hosting attorney/staff in-person events.

Melissa Berry: To celebrate Pride Month we were thrilled to screen the documentary CURED and engage in a live discussion with the co-director. We also host Summer Thursdays, which offer a chance for those in the office to get together informally in the late afternoon.

Practice Innovations: What lessons have you learned about how to run a successful summer program that you will take with you going forward?

Brittney Padilla: In addition to providing a realistic experience, a successful summer program is all about connection, so that is one of our focuses going forward.

Jessica Pixler: Facing challenges together makes a big difference, and having a strong mentoring program that builds personal connections and encourages open communication goes a long way in summer programs.

Melissa Berry: The pandemic equipped us to roll with change and rethink what constitutes a successful summer program. We have shifted our mindset to embrace uncertainty and ask, “What is possible?”