It’s Ugly at the Top

Another post, courtesy of AmLaw Daily, that doesn’t require reading past the first sentence: Summer Hiring Survey: 44 Percent Down in 2010.

Some of the details:

  • Skadden, Arps:  2009 — 223 summer associates; 2010 — 79 summer associates
  • Cravath, Swaine & Moore:  2009 — 123 summer associates; 2010 — 23 summer associates
  • Ropes & Gray:  2009 — 200 summer associates; 2010 82 summer associates
  • Goodwin Procter:  2009 — 66 summer associates; 2010 40 summer associates

The linked article contains the full survey.

Feeling for the One L’s

Over the past ten days I’ve heard from a number of former students who had just begun classes as first-year law students.  I appreciate that they’ve taken time to write.  At the beginning of their first year most students are excited by actually starting this thing they’ve thought about for years, stimulated by their insertion into a group of a few hundred equally smart Type A personalities, and fretting about how they will do.  How will they handle the first time a professor cold-calls on them?  How will they keep up with the reading?  Who among their classmates is like-minded enough to befriend?  I wrote recommendations for all of the students who emailed and I feel some responsibility for them.  Not a lot, but some.  A headline like this from Tuesday’s NY Times grabs me:  “Downturn Dims Prospects Even at Top Law Schools.”  The article’s opening paragraphs are grim:

This fall, law students are competing for half as many openings at big firms as they were last year in what is shaping up to be the most wrenching job search season in over 50 years.  For students now, the promise of the big law firm career — and its paychecks — is slipping through their fingers, forcing them to look at lesser firms in smaller markets as well as opportunities in government or with public interest groups, law school faculty and students say.

The article explains that things are worst for the class of 2011, the rising 2L’s who are looking for 2010 big-firm summer associate positions.  There are too many ahead of them in the firm pipelines so the firms are cutting back their recruiting.  Even if things pick up over the next year, the rising 2L’s will miss have missed the summer associate boat that sails in 2011.

All of the students who wrote are clear-eyed about what lies ahead–but the road will be much harder than they thought when they applied last fall.

Grim Career News: One-Stop Shopping

I have keen interest in the job market for recent law graduates.  My oldest son is looking for a position after his current judicial clerkship ends next fall and a 3L friend is gingerly holding a permanent Big Law job offer, fearing it may disappear with one brief email.  As a service to law students, interested observers of the legal job market, and worried parents The Shark (motto:  “don’t stop swimming.  it’s law school”) has compiled all the depressing info we could find on your future, all in one place, a chart detailing which firms have rescinded offers to 3Ls, deferred 3L start dates, and closed or cut back on 2009 summer programs.

Advice for summer associates

Suffolk University Law School is offering through iTunes U a 20-part podcast series titled “Transitioning from One-L to Summer Legal Work.” Those podcasts I’ve listened to are worthwhile for those law students trying to understand what it means to practice law, especially if they have not worked in a professional or office environment. Kudos to SUSL–and why do neither Boston University or the BU School of Management have offerings on iTunes U?

Don’t Go to Law School

I’ve posted before that prospective law students must honestly consider their prospects for success in law school because, unless they attend one of the very top-ranked schools, their job opportunities will be limited if they are not ranked at the top of their classes. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog recently interviewed “law school naysayer” Kirsten Wolf, a 32-year old BU law graduate. Wolf went to law school a few years out of college believing that she would obtain a marketable skill that would justify the cost of borrowing to pay tuition. In the fall of her second year, when she realized her B+ average was not good enough to land her a summer associate position with a large firm, she began to question her decision. Already $45,000 in debt she stayed, graduated in 2002, passed the Massachusetts bar, and found no law jobs waiting. She went back to the company she worked for before law school and then eventually moved to New York where she landed a job she enjoys, as an office manager for a literary agency. She is paying her $87,000 student loan debt over 30 years–which means she’ll still be paying for law school as she approaches her 60th birthday. In Wolf’s words:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

Legal Blog Watch Alert picked up Wolf’s story and also reported about a lawyer who auctioned his law school diploma on eBay. The post notes the lack of discussion on academic law blogs about whether to attend law school.

For years I have advised students that exceptional performance in law school is more important than where you go. Wolf’s story bears this out. She must have been a good student and gotten good LSAT scores–BU law would not have admitted her otherwise–but that doesn’t put you at the top of your class. Even at BU, which is always ranked as one of the top 25 or 30 law schools in the country, a B+, top-half of the class performance will not open the most lucrative doors. I’m seeing this again with a friend who is currently in her second year at BU. She is quite smart, works exceptionally hard, is one of the most personable and engaging people I know, and yet has been unable to crack into the Big Law summer associate track. And if you aren’t on that track after your second year of law school, your earnings horizon changes dramatically. Yet had Wolf gone to a lower-ranked school and finished at the top of her class–say in the top 10 or 15 places, or top 3.00%–odds are that she could have obtained a high-paying job. Finishing in the top 3% of one’s law school class does not happen without brains and lots of hard work. That’s why those at the top of their class will still merit a look from the most selective employers, because the employers know what it takes to get there.

I’ve always taken a laissez-faire approach with prospective law students. I’ll be honest about the risks and pitfalls of a legal career and then support the student’s decision to attend law school notwithstanding my warnings. I’m now rethinking my approach. Should I recommend a student who has not shown the academic ability to finish in the top five percent of his or her law school class?

The Sun Always Shines . . .

. . . when you are a summer associate. Last week I was comparing notes about our legal careers with an acquaintance. We met when we overlapped briefly at a large Boston firm–I was on my out the door to become general counsel with a real estate development company, he had just come in as a lateral from another Boston firm. He stayed for about five years, went into private practice, and is now very happy as general counsel for a travel-services company. Our reasons for leaving BigLaw were similarly family-driven. As he said “I got to see all of my kids’ school plays, coach their baseball and basketball teams, and be part of their lives.” I thought of this conversation and our mutual gimlet-eyed view of the BigLaw experience when I read this lead paragraph from Legal Blog Watch:

Summer associates gave their firms overall good reviews in The American Lawyer’s 2007 Summer Associates Survey, and why shouldn’t they? After all, what’s not to like? Some found exotic adventures abroad, with one traveling four-and-a-half hours by horseback across the Egyptian desert and another put up in a fancy apartment in Paris. Others were treated to skyboxes at baseball games, cooking classes, musicals, symphony concerts, whitewater rafting trips and scavenger hunts. In New York, there was Kobe beef and Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art, while in San Francisco there was helicoptering under the Golden Gate Bridge and debauchery at Half Moon Bay. All that and a paycheck of nearly $3,000 a week.

I’ll put it like this. None of our recollections of BigLaw life involved Paris apartments, camel rides, or helicopter rides below or above the Golden Gate Bridge. And the debauchery did not occur at Half Moon Bay.