How a law firm’s ‘summer associate’ program survived COVID-19

Rochelle A. Shenk, Contributing Writer//October 12, 2020

How a law firm’s ‘summer associate’ program survived COVID-19

Rochelle A. Shenk, Contributing Writer//October 12, 2020

Barley Snyder’s summer associate program could have been a non-starter this year; a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the law firm’s internship program, which is believed to have been launched over three decades ago, was eventually held with some changes.

“The whole reason I’m at Barley Snyder is because of this program,” said Alexander Puskar, the co-chair of the firm’s summer associate program and an attorney in the Lancaster office. “I went through it seven years ago {as a student at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law} and loved it. It’s important: it’s your test run as an attorney. It’s about education, but it also helped me become familiar with the culture and daily life at the firm.” 

The program is intended to simulate an attorney’s first day with the firm. The work summer associates perform is diverse and hands-on. It includes not only learning about the day-to-day operations of a law firm but also the in-person experience of sitting in on depositions and trial preparation.

Traditionally the eight-week program begins after Memorial Day, but planning for the program begins nearly a year in advance. Jennifer Good, human resources director and a member of the summer associate team, said the firm reviews its upcoming staffing needs, and plans accordingly for the number of summer associates. 

“Our intent is that if a summer associate does well, we’ll make them a job offer,” she explained. “It’s our most important recruiting tool,” 

Law students typically begin applying for the program in the summer for the following summer’s program. For this year’s program, the firm accepted three summer associates—Caleb Setlock, a Lititz resident now in his third year at Duquesne University School of Law; Elizabeth Castillo, a Lancaster resident who recently began her second year at Temple University Beasley School of Law; and Gabriel Wertz, a Lebanon resident who expects to graduate from the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law in 2021

Setlock accepted Barley Snyder’s offer to work as a summer associate early in his second year at law school. But as schools and businesses went into shut-down mode in mid-March, he wondered if the summer associate program would still be held. 

“I had lots of friends in similar situations. As everything began to close down we began worrying about what would happen to our summer positions,” he said. 

Castillo and Wertz were also concerned about the summer positions. “Barley Snyder contacted me before I could even think to contact them,” Castillo said in an internal publication. “The firm was great about communicating with me early on. I really appreciated that.”

The summer associate team began discussing the program in April.

“We’re committed to the program and providing a good experience for the associates,” Puskar said, “After deciding to go ahead with this year’s program, we had to decide how it would work.”

Changes to this year’s program included a delayed start date; instead of the week of May 25, it was pushed back to June 22. But Good said the date still allowed for the full eight-week experience. 

Summer associates were assigned a supervising attorney, but this year that attorney had some additional responsibilities. 

“The summer associates rotate through our various practice areas including business, real estate, tax, employment, litigation and trusts and estates,” Puskar said. “In a non-COVID year, they would be encouraged to knock on doors and introduce themselves to our attorneys. “This year, with some of our attorneys working remotely from home, the supervising attorney made sure the summer associates had opportunities to meet the attorneys.”

Summer associates also traditionally attend networking or client events as well as social activities that include the firm’s softball team. “Unfortunately, those opportunities weren’t available, but the summer associates did have one-to-one lunches with our attorneys,” Good said.

Barley Snyder has several offices including those in Lancaster, York, Harrisburg and Reading. Typically summer associates visit three of them, Good said. This year’s summer associates were based in the Lancaster office, but one remained there, another visited an additional office, and the third visited three offices. 

Wertz experienced the Lancaster office and then spent two weeks each in Reading and Harrisburg. Like other staff members, he and the other summer associates wore face coverings in the office and practiced social distancing protocols.  Much of the experience was in-person but there were some virtual meetings. 

“It was a great experience,” Setlock said. “It was awesome how adaptable everybody was. Everyone as really helpful and wanted to make sure we were Ok using the technology including the billing hour software system. I became really proficient at using Microsoft Teams.”

Now that he’s back at school, he’s realized how lucky he was to have the experience he did at Barley Snyder. Most of his my friends either had their summer program shortened or canceled, and for some the program became a virtual one rather than in-person. 

Wertz said he appreciates what the firm did for him this summer. Like Setlock, some of his classmates and friends missed out on summer educational programs because of the pandemic shutdown.

“Not only did Barley decide to continue with the program, but the firm also ensured that I received an authentic experience by allowing me to work from the office every day and providing me with a steady workload of assignments,” he said. “I am grateful for how everyone went out of their way to create a beneficial learning experience.”