And the hope for both parties - young law students and law firms hungry for top talent in a booming legal economy - is that their summer fling will blossom into a long-term commitment.
"This has really been like an 11-week date," said Muhammad At-Tauhidi, a third-year Temple law school student working at Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll, a 456-lawyer firm based in Philadelphia.
For the law firms, there's a lot at stake in this professional dating game.
According to Altman Weil, the Newtown Square legal consulting firm, revenue at law firms nationwide is on an upward arc, with revenue per partner up 5.3 percent last year. At the largest firms, the numbers are even better, it said.
But to keep that trend in motion, law firms need a steady supply of new hires to staff the ever-burgeoning amount of work. Although young lawyers are paid well - annual salaries for first-year lawyers at Philadelphia's largest firms rose this year to $145,000 - firms make much of their money on associates, who put in long hours but aren't paid as much as partners earning hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
That makes competition for young lawyers very sharp, with intense pressure on firms to keep salaries for top summer associates high, and to continue to court them after they return to law school.
"We want to get the best law students in the country to work for us, and we have to be competitive," said Paul Lantieri, one of two lawyers at Ballard who coordinate the summer-associate program there. He said Ballard paid summer associates $2,788 a week because "that is the going rate."
Many students and first-year associates need to earn a lot because they took out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to pay for their education, Lantieri said. He himself graduated from Harvard Law School several years ago with $100,000 in loans.
For Sarah Davies, the hiring partner at Cozen O'Connor, a 546-lawyer firm based in Center City, the summer programs give firms a chance to evaluate not only the legal skills of young law students but also their ability to fit in.
"We want to get to know each of our summer associates on a personal level, not just on a work level," she said. "We want to see what skills the person has, and that means the writing skills, their oral-communication skills, and their getting-along-with-people skills."
That means a steady flow of social events, where the summer interns mingle with partners and peers, building relationships they hope will help them move through the grid of institutional obstacles when they begin working full time. Chad Kurtz, a Temple law student interning at Cozen O'Connor, said the mix of legal work and social events had exposed him to not only the day-to-day practice of law but also top management.
Contrary to popular lore, most extracurricular events are modest. Firms hosted events at the Lucky Strike bowling alley in Center City this summer, tours of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, dinners and lunches all over town, and evenings at Phillies games.
But a few are over the top. Mega-firm Dechert took all 99 of its summer associates - including the 50 here - to London this summer to get a sense of how law is practiced in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Dechert, which has 934 lawyers overall, has a 112-lawyer office in London.
"It gave us a holistic view of the firm and the international work that we do, and how the domestic work we do plays into that," said Shevon Rockett, a Dechert summer associate from Washington.
Summer interns at Philadelphia's Morgan, Lewis & Bockius - also a behemoth, ranking among the nation's largest firms with 1,252 lawyers - began their program with a two-day firmwide conclave in Santa Monica, Calif.
And in May, with a full moon overhead, a dozen or so WolfBlock interns shared cocktails and dinner with partners and local judges on the terrace of partner Jerome Shestack's duplex overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, City Hall, and the office towers of Center City. Shestack is a former head of the American Bar Association.
The big recruitment pitch, with campus visits, interviews, and highly orchestrated social routines for squadrons of summer associates, is largely the province of firms with several hundred or more lawyers. So, too, are the high salaries. Only a relative handful of graduates from top law schools can hope to earn that much straight out of school.
According to the National Association for Law Placement, a trade organization that focuses on recruitment and placement of lawyers, only 14 percent of all first-year lawyers hired in 2006 had salaries in the range of $135,000 to $145,000. Since, on a weekly basis, first-year salaries correspond with compensation for interns, the NALP statistics give an idea of how rarefied is the high-end market for summer internships.
Far more lawyers earn at the lower end of the scale. Forty-two percent of first-year lawyers in NALP's survey earned $55,000 or less, with most of those at smaller firms and in government jobs.
Jim Leipold, head of NALP, said the focus on salaries for interns and associates at the biggest firms had given many law students "an inflated expectation of their salaries."
Far more typical is the situation at Flaster Greenberg, a 70-lawyer firm with offices in Cherry Hill and Philadelphia. Peter Spirgel, head of the firm, said firms the size of Flaster Greenberg didn't need the huge number of entry-level hires that larger firms required to staff their big cases. Instead, the firm tends to hire lawyers with several years' experience.
If anything, the climate for summer associates in big firms has become more sober and work-oriented in recent years, said Lantieri of Ballard.
Most interns said they worked about 50 hours a week. That's less than the 70 or so many full-time lawyers work, but certainly not a schedule for a layabout.
In interviews, most summer associates focused far more on their work experiences than on after-hours activities. The first brush with professional responsibility seemed both thrilling and sobering.
"It was not stunningly different from what you did in law school," said Kathryn Rutigliano, a Boston College Law School student and summer associate at Cozen O'Connor. "It is just that there is so much more riding on it than your personal grade. . . . In law school, when you don't do well on an exam, the only person affected by that is you. It was eye-opening."
Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or firstname.lastname@example.org.