Emergence of "Mayhem Night" Could Be a Positive Sign for BigLaw Hiring

By Mike Dorf

I was a summer associate in 1988 (in NYC) and 1989 (in DC).  Because the stock market had crashed in 1987, already summer associate programs were not quite as lavish as they had been in the early to mid-80s, but even in the late 80s, a number of firms still sponsored "dream nights"--a fully paid night on the town for each summer associate and a guest.  A typical dream night consisted of dinner at a high-end restaurant, a show, and perhaps a stop at a club or two.

Given the tight legal market that new law graduates now face, tales of dream nights past may seem like a cruel taunt.  And truth be told, dream night per se was already long gone fifteen years ago (as noted in this 1997 NY Times story), so the demise of dream night long pre-dated the Great Recession.  In any event, my point here is not to make anyone feel bad about their comparative circumstances.  On the contrary, today's post is about a hopeful story.  For while dream night may have died, apparently the dream of dream night, if you will, lived on.

Many of the lawyers now in charge at the major New York law firms--lawyers in their late forties through mid-fifties--came of age in what we might call the dream-night era.  Some of them remember dream night fondly and want to see it, or something like it, return.  Although no one whom I contacted in researching this blog post would speak for attribution, several had wistful tones in discussing dream night.  One corporate partner at a top NYC firm--whom I'll call "Bob"--speaking on condition of anonymity, said this:
Dream night got a bad rap.  Sure there was excess, but even when it went bad, that made for a good story.  I remember this one guy Ted who summered at [name of law firm].  For his dream night, Ted used the firm's travel agent to book a roundtrip business class flight for himself and his girlfriend to Paris to eat at some super-expensive restaurant, putting the whole tab on the managing partner's account.  Ted would have gotten away with it, except that the travel agent called the managing partner to ask why he wasn't traveling first class, the way he usually did.  The partner wasn't going to Paris so he got suspicious and Ted got reamed out.  But he got an offer anyway!
Another early fiftysomething partner at a different firm, whom I'll call Sheila, also defended dream night.  "Say what you will," she averred, "but dream night was a way for a firm to signal to its summers two things.  One: If you come to work here, you'll make a shitload of money.  And two: No seriously, if you come to work here, you'll make a gigantic shitload of money."  Sheila then paused and added: "You remember, you did promise not to use my name.  I'm a lawyer."

I am honoring my promise to keep the identities of my interviewees secret, but I didn't promise to keep the substance of what I learned secret.  And it's this: Although dream night is not coming back, something else is taking its place.  A number of firms seem to have converged on what what Bob (the partner who told me about Ted's excellent adventure in Paris) is calling "mayhem night."  Bob explained the concept like this:
The Dow is above 13k, and for firms that do a lot of financial work, that means that the good times are starting to roll again.  You watch.  In a couple of years, we'll all be doing a lot of hiring.  And when that starts I want [name of his firm] to be well positioned to attract top talent.  It would be great if we could just bring back dream night, but we can't, we just can't.  It's bad P.R. in general and the clients would eat us alive.  So the question is, how can we sell the firm to the summers without making a big deal of it?
Mistakenly thinking that Bob was asking me a question, I offered: "I don't know, by offering interesting work with reasonable hours and flexible family policies?"  Bob made clear that his question was rhetorical.  He continued:
What was so cool about dream night was that you had 24-year-old students play-acting as real lawyers by day and then play-acting as millionaires at night.  It was a total rush.  It gave you a sense of omnipotence.  So I asked myself: How else can you give a 24-year-old a sense of omnipotence?  And then it hit me: You give him a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Bob went on to explain what he meant.  Essentially, on one designated night, a summer associate is told that no matter what he or she does, the firm will provide a full criminal and civil defense, including indemnification up to $250,000.  A lawyer at another firm said that their version of "mayhem night" did not cover "acts that cause permanent bodily harm to another person" but that the coverage for property damage and "minor injuries" went up to $500,000.  I personally verified that at least three firms are planning to implement mayhem nights and I was told that another half dozen are considering it.

When I asked Bob and the others whether mayhem night wouldn't generate even worse P.R. than would be generated by simply bringing back dream night, they mostly scoffed.  "Look," said Sheila,
these kids aren't idiots.  They know that a promise to defend doesn't guarantee they'll get off.  I think the worst we will see is the sort of acting out that kids who don't end up going to law school get out of their system in high school.  Maybe someone will deliberately crash a rental car or start a bar fight.  It'll be good fun.  And the important thing is that mayhem night will communicate to our summers that we've got their back.  For most summers, mayhem night won't be about what they actually do but about what they could do if they wanted to.  It's going to be awesome.
I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback by the very concept of mayhem night, so I surveyed seven legal ethics experts (an admittedly unscientific sample).  All but one told me that they already knew about mayhem night and they all agreed that it raised an ethical question.  As one legal ethics expert explained: "The question is one of fairness.  Sure, mayhem night is great for the couple of hundred rising 3Ls who land jobs at firms that will sponsor a mayhem night.  But what about all of the others?"  What indeed?