The frenzy has even pushed the nation’s top firms, a tradition-bound coterie, into discussing how to reform the recruitment process with an earnestness that would have been unthinkable just years ago.
Even if the economy is beginning to pick up, the legal profession has been pummeled over the last year, with some firms closing and survivors often asking associates to take leaves of absence.
How bad is it? Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the juggernaut of New York, has slashed its hiring by more than half. For the first time in 136 years, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a respected Philadelphia firm, has canceled its recruiting entirely. Global firms like DLA Piper and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe have postponed recruiting for several months to see if the market improves.
At Yale, students accustomed to being wooed by Big Law’s glittering names — like Baker & McKenzie; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, & McCloy; and White & Case — were stunned when those firms canceled interviews in New Haven this month.
New York University, Georgetown, Northwestern and other top universities confirm that interviews are down by a third to a half compared with a year ago, while lower-ranked schools are suffering more. What is more, when interviews finish in a few weeks, even fewer offers will be extended, said Howard L. Ellin, the chairman of global hiring at Skadden, Arps, because many firms are interviewing students for slots they may not fill.
After he lost his job as a television reporter two years ago, Derek Fanciullo considered law school, thinking it was a historically sure bet. He took out “a ferocious amount of debt,” he said — $210,000, to be exact — and enrolled last September in the School of Law at New York University.
“It was thought to be this green pasture of stability, a more comfortable life,” said Mr. Fanciullo, who had heard that 90 percent of N.Y.U. law graduates land jobs at firms, and counted on that to repay his loans. “It was almost written in stone that you’ll end up in a law firm, almost like a birthright.”
With the cost of law school skyrocketing over the years, the implicit arrangement between students and the most expensive and prestigious schools has only strengthened: the student takes on hefty debt to pay tuition, and the school issues the golden ticket to a job at a high-paying firm — if that’s what the student wants.
“Students came in with a certain sense of what the compact was going to be,” said Irene Dorzback, the assistant dean for career services at the New York University School of Law. But with the system crumbling in recent months, Ms. Dorzback said, “people are now accepting this notion of a lost year.”
The timing is worst for the class of 2011, the second-years now looking to get into firms, because of a unique logjam created last year. After the September financial crisis, firms chose to defer their new hires at the price of steeply cutting recruiting this year.
But students who miss the brief window of opportunity to land an offer this fall may struggle to break into firms once next year’s class rises. When Julia Figurelli, a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to enter law school a year ago, she expected to find a lucrative law firm job in three years — if not collecting the $160,000-a-year associate salaries at one of the uppermost partnerships. By the time she obtains her J.D., she says, she will have around $200,000 in debt.
“Had I seen where the market was going, I would’ve gone to a lower-ranked but less expensive public school,” she said. “I’m questioning whether law school was the right choice at all.”
Once aiming to work in Philadelphia, Ms. Figurelli is now hunting for jobs in lower-paying markets, like Pittsburgh and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I’m looking anywhere my competition isn’t looking,” she added.
School officials are pushing students to look beyond the white-shoe firms, to delve deep into alumni networks and to start mass letter-writing campaigns to potential employers. Like Ms. Figurelli, many students say that for the first time, they are considering and seeking work with government and public-interest groups.