One of the most difficult feats in the legal profession is getting fired from a job as a summer associate at a big law firm. Stupidity, incompetence, and misbehavior are simply not enough to persuade most firms to show summer associates the door. However, David Lat at Above the Law recounts a recent example of a summer associate associate who really did get fired. The budding lawyer in question got the axe because he “(a) he allegedly engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with female summer associates, variously described as ‘repeatedly smack[ing] the asses of female summers’ or ‘playing grab ass with female summers,’ and (b) . . . allegedly made racially insensitive jokes, in front of multiple attorneys.”
In other words, our hero was done in by a combination of racist talk and sexual harrassment. The sad tale recounted by David fits in with my own anecdotal experience. I know of only a handful of people who have been fired from summer associate positions. But every one of them was let go because because of allegations of racism, sexual harrassment, or both. Why this pattern (assuming that my experience is representative)? Some might see it as a symptom of political correctness. Perhaps – though, in all of the cases I’m familiar with, I would probably have fired the racist/harrasser in question too.
But there is another explanation for firms’ toleration of other kinds of bad behavior by summer associates, combined with intolerance for sexual harrassment and open racism. Most big firms want summer associate jobs to be as much fun and as little pressure for law students as possible; that is what they think will make a good impression on the summer associates and convince them to take full-time jobs at the firm later on. Not firing people for incompetence, stupidity or obnoxiousness is one way to ensure an easygoing, low-pressure atmosphere. And it doesn’t do much harm to the partners’ bottom line because the firm isn’t likely to make much of a profit on summer associates’ work anyway.
However, if a summer associate engages in racist or sexist behavior without retribution, that is likely to damage the firm’s public image, thereby making it difficult to recruit new lawyers in the future (particularly women and minorities). Moreover, failure to discipline employees who engage in sexual harrassment could open the firm to costly litigation.
In sum, law firms are willing to tolerate most misbehavior by summer associates because it is in their interest to do so. But summer associates, like other workers, will get the axe if their misadventures threaten to hurt the bottom line.
It is fashionable to decry big law firms’ and other businesses concern for maximizing profit. In this case, however, it leads them to crack down on racism, sexism, and harrassment far more than they otherwise might. Not a bad outcome.