I just read an article about the varied experiences of Summer Associates (http://www.lawschool.com/outings.htm). It reminded of the questions I generally heard from my classmates and other law students before choosing where to spend the summer. The two most common where: (1) What am I getting paid?; and (2) Where am I going (meaning a well-known firm, a popular location, etc.). While these are fair questions, especially with law school debt weighing heavily on most law students' shoulders, I think there are two more appropriate questions, especially when looking to the long-term practice of law.
The first is: What am I getting?, with an emphasis on seeking legal experience, including research, original drafting, client interaction, courtroom exposure, etc. I have always heard the money will come if you are great at what you do. So why should a law student jump at the money and sacrifice his/her long-term ability to become great? That's not to say you can't become great at a major firm, because you can, it just means that greatness comes from experience in this profession. I have yet to meet a Summer Associate or law clerk getting the kind of experience I am getting at a start-up law firm with one founding partner. However, my position may be unique considering I am working with the GAL : ).
The second question is: Why am I going? Instead of focusing on where, as I almost did, I am now focusing more than ever on why. This second question contains subquestions, so to speak, such as: Why do you want to practice a particular kind of law?; Why am I going to this firm/government position/etc.; Why am I going to this city? Many law students seek the mega-firm with a large upfront payoff. However, sometimes it is those who can delay pleasure, or those who were not in the position to capture such an opportunity, that end up the happiest. Not to mention, the latter also tend to find the success that the former thought they had captured when following the footsteps of so many Summer Associates before them. It all comes down to evaluating why before you make that initial move.
One final thought, it seems odd to me that the notorious large firm Summer Associate life entails extravagant lunches, outings, after-work cocktails, etc. Work time is spent doing fun and nights and weekends can be spent doing work, especially when the real associate life kicks in. Wouldn't you rather work when your supposed to and spend that time at the ballpark or the restaurant or the retreat with the ones that helped get you to where you are, namely your friends and family? I know I would. The best of both worlds does exist, and I think I am living in it this summer. You just have look hard and constantly ask why are you going where you are going.