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July|August 2003
Alimentary School By Joel Topcik
A Seat At The Table By Michael S. Gerber
Tour's Over By Damien Cave

Alimentary School

By Joel Topcik

WHEN THE 2003 CLASS OF SUMMER ASSOCIATES arrived at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett this May, each was issued a welcome packet. Among the maps and guidebooks provided to introduce these aspiring lawyers to life in New York City was one indispensable item: the Zagat Survey. While being handy with the "blue book" style guide can help a law student get a coveted summer position, it's the burgundy-covered restaurant guide that leads him to the spoils of a summer in Manhattan.

The life of a summer associate in New York City is a busy one. In addition to the occasional Lexis search, there are the cocktail parties, Broadway shows, and East River boat cruises that legal recruiters devise to delight their prospective hires. A free lunch may seem mundane compared to those lavish outings, but in a city that is home to some of the finest dining in the hemisphere, the summer associate lunch is a category of perk unto itself.

Since the days when Wall Street lawyers welcomed young recruits with a meal in the private dining rooms of downtown men's clubs, firms have always treated their summer associates to lunch. Over the decades, it has grown into a recruitment institution, waxing and waning in lavishness according to the fashions of the city's food culture and the fortunes of the economy. "It's one of the major costs of the summer program," said Paul Curnin, co-chair of recruiting at Simpson Thacher. At the height of the boom in the late 1990s, the lunch tab for a firm hosting 50 summer associates for 12 weeks could run as high as $100,000.

Belt-tightening in response to a stagnant economy has always meant less summer lunching, but the crisis facing this season's summer associates is especially complicated. As Americans continue to recoil at the extravagance of the Enron era—free lunch was a perk for everyone from administrative assistants on up during the Houston company's salad days—will law firms go on letting their summer interns have their lunch for nothing?

Lunch has long been a leading indicator of a firm's economic health, and in the 1980s, as corporate law—and the power lunch—thrived, the summer associate lunch flourished. "It was at the height of all the deals and mergers and acquisitions and poison pills, companies buying other companies," recalled Cameron Stracher, a partner at Levine Sullivan & Koch and the author of Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair, a wicked novelistic account of the adventures of a young associate in New York City. Stracher was a summer associate at Sullivan & Cromwell during the late '80s, just in time to make last call before the party ended in a market crash. "Food wasn't as important as atmosphere then," Stracher said. Instead, lunch was an opportunity for summer associates and their patrons to sample the latest trend—Caribbean food, Cosmopolitans—preoccupying the city. "Lunch on the firm" might have started with jerk chicken at Sugar Reef and ended past midnight with neon-tinted cocktails at the legendary '80s club Danceteria. "I never got the sense that there were limits," Stracher recalled. "It was all about opulence and extravagance."

When the recession took hold in 1991, however, opulence and extravagance were out, and limits were in. Firms began to impose spending caps on lunches, and top-shelf restaurants like the Four Seasons were verboten. There was a sense among the firms that a correction, as they say on Wall Street, was needed after the excesses of the '80s. In 1995, the spending cap at Cravath was $35 a head; at Clifford Chance it was $25. Latham & Watkins was particularly austere, providing a lawyer at the firm with a paltry $15 to cover himself and a summer associate—barely enough to share a sandwich at the Carnegie Deli.
But a rising tide lifts all spending caps, and, as the economy turned the corner in 1995, lavish lunching was back on the program. Legal work was plentiful, and firms prostrated themselves before students to dissuade them from seeking greener pastures in Silicon Valley. In February 2000, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom raised its base salary for incoming associates to $140,000, a $15,000 jump over the starting pay of its competitors.

Unlike the scene-hopping of the '80s, however, lunch in the late '90s was an Epicurean pursuit. Summer associates who came to New York found a city awakening to the virtues of mushroom foam and beef cheeks, a place where chefs were celebrated as cultural icons. In the summer of 2000, the lunch caps at Shearman & Sterling and Simpson Thacher shot up to $65 a head.

"Lunch certainly was the perk du jour of the late '90s," said Steven Davidoff, an associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Confident that nothing short of a triple homicide would jeopardize their job offers, summer associates behaved recklessly. "It got to the point where 'summers' were just ticking off the restaurants in the Zagat Survey, trying to hit all the 'Top 20,' " recalled Davidoff. One summer associate apparently took "du jour" as an imperative, claiming to have eaten free—and well—every day of his internship in 2000. "Everyone knew I was taking advantage," he explained. "I wasn't fooling anyone."

Apparently he didn't have to. Spending caps at his firm were routinely ignored by the partners who signed off on expense reports, and no restaurant was strictly off limits. There were, however, limits of taste: One Simpson Thacher summer associate infamously called a restaurant before lunch to preorder a soufflé. The act of premeditated exorbitance made him the object of considerable ridicule, a lesson that even at the height of dot.com decadence it was still possible to be gauche.

To be sure, summer associates weren't the only ones who took advantage. Full-time associates were notorious for regarding the summer help as walking meal tickets. "I'd be called into someone's office and told, 'Let's go out to Jean Georges with my buddies from M&A and have it paid for,' " recalled another late '90s summer associate. When warm bodies were unavailable, some lawyers simply conjured them up. In 1999, Shearman suspended three associates for "ghosting" their meal expenses—claiming a summer associate was present in order to get reimbursed.

When the bottom dropped out of the market in 2001, such tales of excess and greed appeared all too much of a piece with headlines decrying corporate malfeasance. It wasn't just Enron's Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay who were called to testify before Congress. The house firm, Vinson & Elkins, was called to the carpet as well. The pleasures of a three-hour lunch seemed a luxury that firms could no longer afford, financially or otherwise.

Students quickly noted a change in the weather. After a "sobering summer" in 2002, L Magazine, the student-published sibling of American Lawyer, applauded the absence of the "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude" that characterized previous classes of associates. "Students are certainly aware of what's going on in the economy," said Ellen Wayne, dean of recruiting at Columbia Law School. "I think this group is more serious." To encourage moderation, firms have begun to promote lunch as an opportunity not for profligacy but for philanthropy: White & Case, among others, have given summer associates the opportunity to forgo an expensive lunch so that the balance of their daily spending cap may be donated to charity.

THINGS MAY LOOK GRIM FOR THE SUMMER ASSOCIATE LUNCH, but a moribund economy and even some bad press aren't likely to kill it. While students have curbed their expectations, they recognize that lunch is an institution that firms will cut only at great peril to their reputations. It was perhaps with some measure of bravado that a Shearman recruiter declared in June 2001, "We're not cutting back." "Among the top five or so firms there's still a lot of spending," said Paul Curnin of Simpson Thacher. "But I have some sense that some of the splashier events aren't occurring. I think you'll see lower-key things that are just as expensive but don't attract attention."

Attracting attention, it seems, is the greater risk. Most recruiters at the city's top firms preferred not to discuss the subject of what a summer associate can learn about being a lawyer by eating lunch at Nobu. Many recruiters declined to discuss the firm's summer program altogether, lest an enumeration of the golf outings, beach trips, and "Skaddenger" hunts evoke images of summer camp (where the campers get paid $2,500 a week). Those who are willing to consider the role of lunching in recruitment insist that there is nothing remarkable about it. Lunch isn't meant to dazzle, said a recruiter at Cravath. "The main focus is for students to meet associates and partners."

Summer associates themselves, however, recognize that an elegant lunch is meant to be a taste of the future, an arm around the shoulder and a whisper in the ear that says, All this and more. Many students consider these lunches an introduction to the world of pleasure and privilege they will soon inhabit. "It can show you how to treat yourself when you start making money," said one third-year student at Harvard. "Some people who haven't ever had wine before see their first bottle costing $100."

For the many law students who come to the profession with little experience of the world beyond the dining hall, lunch on the firm can be a finishing school—of sorts. After weeks of long hours and take-out, it's good to know which champagne goes best with the closing of a big M&A deal. Civility and etiquette, however, have long since been retired from the corporate lawyer's repertoire. Paul Curnin said good manners aren't among the qualities firms look for in young associates. "I've looked at probably 40,000 reviews of summer associates in all the years I've been doing this, and I've never seen it written, 'Did not use proper fork.' "

If New York's firms are using lunch to sell anything it's the city itself. "Lunch is a very good way for summer associates to become New Yorkers and learn to do what New Yorkers do, which is eat," said Steven Davidoff. No one knows that better than Nina and Tim Zagat, the creators of the Zagat Survey. Before publishing the first edition of their restaurant guide in 1986, both were lawyers in Manhattan, she at Shearman & Sterling and he at Gulf & Western Industries, among other companies. Nina Zagat noted that lawyers have always been among the most avid participants in the survey. She added, however, that when she was an associate she was too busy to worry much about where to have lunch: "I was more of a sandwich-at-my-desk type."

Joel Topcik is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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