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The New York Times
Well, this is awkward.
So begins dozens of painful phone calls from students at the nation’s top law schools this week, after about 30 students learned that their plum summer jobs at Dewey & LeBoeuf had vanished. Now these students are returning, hat in hand, to ask for jobs they had once rejected.
Right now, the odds are against them.
“Firms, while wanting to help out, are generally not in a position to add to their summer class, and they respond accordingly,” said Andrew Aitchison, 27, a second-year law student at Georgetown University Law Center. “We kind of got the rug pulled out from under us.”
Mr. Aitchison and his counterparts at other elite schools had expected to walk out of their final exams this week and into a summer position promised back in the fall. Like summer associate jobs at most white-shoe law firms, they would have earned around $3,000 a week, plus free meals, field trips and other goodies. It would be a cushy, two-month courtship that virtually guaranteed equally lucrative employment with Dewey after graduation.
But now those jobs are gone, and just about every comparable opportunity was booked nearly a year ago.
The legal industry has an unusually synchronized and suffocatingly compressed hiring schedule. Most big law firms do not have rolling applications for their summer slots. Instead, they interview students during the same two-week period right as their second year of law school begins. At that point students have received only two semesters of grades, but those grades will determine where they work the next summer — and often, for the rest of their lives. That is because firms offer permanent, postgraduation jobs to just about every summer associate, for fear of looking like their business has suddenly dropped off if they do not.
With Dewey’s announcement, these students’ careful, fastidiously risk-averse career planning collapsed under them, and they fell off the job track not just for Dewey but for its peer firms. Of the dozens of major firms contacted for this article, only one had picked up one of these stranded summer associates, and that was because one of its partners had a personal connection to the student.
The others all declined to comment, with the exception of one firm spokeswoman who said her firm did not have any openings, but even if it did, it would hire someone from its own shortlist rather than extend an offer to one of the Dewey students.
“We all got into multiple places but just picked the wrong one,” said Mr. Aitchison, the only one of several associates interviewed for this article who was willing to be identified. “Now every other program is full, and it’s not like they’re going to all adjust their plans to accommodate the failure of this one.”
The financial problems at Dewey & LeBoeuf emerged around January, when partners started leaving the firm. Still, students thought their jobs were safe.
“This firm has been around in some form for over a century. My sense was this place is not going to go away,” said one student at an Ivy League school who is now scrambling to find a job at another firm. He had initially given his name but later insisted on anonymity because he was concerned about jeopardizing discussions with law firms that had offered him positions last fall.
Schools are working overtime to make sure their students find some sort of employment.
“These are extreme and extraordinary circumstances,” said Mark Weber, assistant dean for career services at Harvard Law School. “We want to make sure that everybody gets that these students are innocent bystanders in what’s a difficult and unfortunate situation.”
To that end, he, like career advisers at other top schools, has been encouraging these unlucky students to call firms that had extended offers last fall. He has also been reaching out to firms and asking them to “step up to the plate and use this as an opportunity to bolster their ranks, and to help out students and schools dealing with a difficult situation.”
Students are likewise crossing their fingers and hoping that some combination of their own credentials and other firms’ good will will carry them through.
“A firm may look like a corporation, yes, but we’re all part of a fraternity of lawyers,” said the Ivy League student. “Next year one becomes a member of the bar association, a linked structure. The firms may be competitors, but at the end of the day this is still the greater legal field. I hope this sensibility that we are part of a profession will also be in the minds of people as they consider us.”
Some current and former Dewey partners have decided to pitch in to help out the people displaced by the firm’s current troubles.
Of course, not all lawyers will be benevolent, even if their firms do have last-minute slots available.
“It really depends on the hiring partner,” said one lawyer who was formerly a partner at Dewey. “Most firms have an inflated opinion of themselves, as do most lawyers. If last fall you offered a job to John Smith from Harvard, and he said, ‘No thanks, I’m going to Dewey,’ your reaction might be, ‘Why the hell did he go to that firm? He must be an idiot.’ ”
Benevolence and quality of workers aside, firms may also see rescuing a Dewey casualty as a way to curry favor with the career services offices at elite law schools.
“The placement offices at these schools have a lot of sway with the students,” said a lawyer at the firm who hired the stranded summer associate. “If you were a firm that took on two kids who don’t have a job because of Dewey, they might throw you a few bones, maybe tell the best students next year what a stand-up firm you are.”
Students are also widening their nets and applying for more nonprofit and government jobs, though many of those positions, too, have already been locked in. Public sector internships tend to pay less than law firm jobs, if they pay at all. For students who expect to graduate with $150,000 in debt, taking a summer law firm job can mean the difference between a balanced diet and eating ramen every meal.
“The place I’ve been working during the school year has said it’s willing to accommodate an extension for me, so I got lucky in that sense,” said Mr. Aitchison. He said the job entailed unpaid work at a government agency, but declined to name it. “I don’t want to say which one because I worry they’ll suddenly get flooded with résumés.”