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Some Big Law summer associates are getting paid $3,600 a week to do nothing as the coronavirus slashes programs from 10 weeks to 2

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  • Law firms normally have hands-on summer programs for law students, mostly after their second year in law school, that lets them bond and get a feel for law-firm life.

  • But some of the top firms in the country, including Kirkland & Ellis, Davis Polk, Cravath, and Sidley Austin, are moving summer associate programs online, partly or fully, and cutting them short.

  • Many of the most profitable firms are paying students for the full length of the program – more than $3,600 per week – even if they're shortening it.

  • Less profitable firms tend to be pro-rating pay, or offering stipends or advances, causing some summer associates to stress about their finances.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The top law firms in the US tend to have a regimented hiring process that has been drastically disrupted by the coronavirus, leaving hundreds of rising lawyers with little to do this summer – even if they're still getting paid $3,600 a week.

Summer associate programs are a rite of passage for thousands of law students wrapping up their second, or 2L, year in law school. The recruiting process for such roles starts in the fall of the 2L year, and most summers can expect to eventually get an offer for full-time work once they graduate, assuming they pass the bar exam after their 3L year.

The pandemic has led to delays throughout the process, however. States including New York and California have canceled the July bar exam, and several law firms that normally start their first-years in the fall have said they won't be onboarding the incoming class until some point in 2021.

Law firms that typically start their programs in May – like Davis Polk & Wardwell, which had planned to have 133 summer associates worldwide starting on May 4 – are delaying them to June or July.

Read more: Big Law M&A work is evaporating as coronavirus spreads, but some firms are about to make bank. Here are the winners and losers.

Most are trimming them down to six, four, or even two weeks and moving them online, at least to start. Cravath, Swaine & Moore is starting its six-week program virtually on June 15, although it's possible that it may transition to the office. And Sidley Austin, whose program will run from July 6 to July 31, has told summers that it will still pay them for 10 weeks and is designing a "robust and engaging" virtual program

One reason firms say they're cutting back is because the social aspect of the summer associate experience – a big part of it — is hard to replicate virtually. Kevin Iredell, a spokesman for law firm Lowenstein Sandler, said the firm's summers traditionally go to happy hours, dinners, a cruise around Manhattan and a Major League Baseball game. But the MLB has indefinitely delayed the start of its season, and bans on large gatherings have all but eliminated prospects for dining out.

"Right now it'll be mostly virtual, but we're still holding out hope that we'll be able to host some in-person events," Iredell said in an email. "That will all be dependent on the state restrictions."

Another compelling reason to cut back on summer programs is financial. Law firms large and small have already trimmed salaries and furloughed staff and lawyers. While summers might have hoped to spend more time doing supervised legal work – drafting memos and the like – some firms just don't think it's worth the investment of time.

"Most in-house legal teams do not allow law firms to charge for summer students, nor first-year associates," Nancey Watson, a legal pricing consultant, said in an email.

One of the strongest predictors of which law firms are offering their summers full pay is the firm's profit per equity partner, or PPEP. Many of the firms that are promising to pay their summers in full, regardless of the length of the program, netted more than $3 million per equity partner last year. Less profitable firms have been more likely to shrink pay to match the shorter programs or to provide a small stipend, although there have been exceptions. 

The cuts can be difficult for some rising lawyers – many of whom are in the midst of final exams – to handle. On online forums like Reddit and TopLawSchools, they fret about canceling leases and paying debts with far less income than they'd budgeted for. Some say they've managed to find research-assistant work with professors, while others are still looking for other sources of income. 

One summer associate at a large law firm whose expected income was cut by more than $20,000 told Business Insider he's considering taking on additional work in a grocery store or a warehouse to make up for it. 

For summer associates who are more financially secure, boredom could become an issue. At Kirkland & Ellis, the country's top-grossing firm, which last year had more than 300 summer associates, what for many was a 10-week program has been trimmed to just two weeks of virtual programming. They are still being paid for the original length of their commitment.

Kirkland and some other firms that have shortened or canceled their summer programs are also trying to assuage summers' concerns by guaranteeing that they'll have a job at the firm once they graduate.

Read more: 10 lawyers who navigated the biggest bankruptcies in history are seeing a boom in business thanks to a restructuring surge

Many firms are encouraging their rising lawyers to volunteer. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett has trimmed its 10-week program to five weeks online, and it will pay summers for eight weeks. But it will also tack on a $7,500 stipend – just over two weeks' worth of pay – for summers who commit to pro bono legal work, like helping poor criminal defendants, or other volunteering, like food drives, it told summers in an email seen by Business Insider.

"Our hope is that each of our summer associates will contribute in a safe and positive way to their communities, or other communities in need, as we all look for ways to ease the burden brought on by the pandemic," the email said.

Nathan Peart, a recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa, said many firms are trying to structure pro bono opportunities on top of their virtual programming. He said law firms can't replicate the "natural connections" that can happen in an office, but are still trying to build bonds with summer associates by setting up one-on-one conversations with lawyers and other mentorship activities.

"It's a rolling-our-sleeves-up attitude," he said. "Everyone's trying the best they can."

SEE ALSO: Some top law firms are canceling summer associate programs while others cut them in half — here's everything we know so far

SEE ALSO: Law firms are starting to cancel summer associate classes entirely as they scramble to cut costs.

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