The stock market has gone up and down, but for decades at Harvard Law School,
one thing has remained the same: job security.
“As a Harvard student, you feel entitled to get a job, and you ignore these
dire reports on CNN,” one student told the Crimson in February after the
Harvard Law School’s peak recruiting season had passed her by and left her
without a job. “You think that things will work out like every other
During the current recession corporate law firms—like a majority of other
industries—have pared down their operations after transactional assignments
in investment banking and trading evaporated in the heat of the downturn.
Top performers from the nation’s most elite law school are now faced with
slashed salaries, lay-offs and reduced hiring. The pre-crash ideal of
fast-cash has been swept away by the brusque hand of the last two years of
In economic downturns, law firms have come to expect litigation activity to
increase even while transactions decrease in a recession. But the magnitude of
this recession—the worst since the Great Depression—has nullified this
conventional wisdom, leaving firms scrambling to cope.
The fall-out has accelerated a reform process within firms to improve the way
that they hire, recruit, and operate.
This year, Harvard Law School has seen a 20 percent reduction in the number of
firms participating in its recruitment process, according to Mark A. Weber,
assistant dean for career services at the Law School. Some members of the
class of 2009 received deferred start-dates as firms struggled to keep the
hiring commitments they made two years earlier. And starting salaries for the
largest firms have dropped from around $160,000 to $140,000.
Administrators and experts at the Law School have hinted at the possibility of
pushing back the start date of the fall recruiting season. But starting this
spring, the Law School will host a second recruitment period for “firms
whose hiring outlooks have changed,” in anticipation of an economic
Jason C. Murray, a second-year student at the Law School flew from Cambridge
to Washington, DC two weeks ago for what is commonly referred to as “fly out
week,” an intense week long, class-free period of job interviews and elbow
rubbing with potential employers.
Murray is one of the few still falling snugly into the mold that has
characterized the recruiting process for decades earlier. Just one semester
into his first year, Murray entered into the competitive process of applying
and interviewing for summer internships.
The next fall, the job hunt began in earnest. Murray landed three interviews
in Washington and three summer job offers that would likely result in a full
But Murray’s success is emblematic of a fundamental problem with this
recruitment system, some critics say. The two-year lag between when firms
extend job offers and when employees begin their first year forces firms to
predict associate demand far in advance of the start date and leads to
inaccurate predictions of hiring needs.
According to Weber, the backlog of entry-level associates or “overhang” is
negatively impacting firm demand for associates in this recruiting cycle.
After the financial crisis pummelled investment banks and the fountain of
transactional work dried up, law firms were forced to keep the commitments
they made to new hires two years earlier. The result: a spate of deferred
start dates that began with the class of 2009 and may continue with the class
The Law School began taking steps to cope with the downturn last year when
they announced that the 2009 fall recruitment schedule would be moved up by a
month. Also this year, the school will mediate a second recruiting session in
Students say the Law School’s Office of Career Services has generally been
helpful in guiding students through a tough job market—anything from
presenting students with possible career options to offering fashion advice on
But several students criticized OCS for issuing newsletters packed with
“doom and gloom” predictions about the job market.
“It was almost like fearmongering,” said Julia K. Seider, a second year
student at the Law School.
Law Professor Asish Nanda said he is leading a movement to reform the
recruiting process that would entail transitioning law schools to a system
similar to the method medical schools use to match students with residencies.
Under such a system, firms would interview all applicants in the spring of
their second year. Firms would then list preferences for applicants, students
would list their firm preferences, and a matching program would pair students
But some students say that the getting an early start to the recruitment
process gives them early exposure to firms and in many cases guarantees that
they will land a high-paying job, even as they watch their student loans pile
“The interview process is an opportunity to learn about the firms,” Murray
said. “It would be hard to get a firm idea of what the firm is like under a
But law firms today publicly defend the extended recruiting system as an
important component of acclimating new hires to life at a firm.
“I think one of the things that works well is that it gives students a real
opportunity to come spend some time at the firm and get a very real sense of
what it’s like to work at the firm,” said Michael J. Summersgill, chair of
the hiring committee for Wilmer Hale’s Boston office and a graduate of
Harvard Law School. “What other industry has that opportunity to work? I
think it’s a unique approach, and I think that’s a good thing.”
A STRUCTURAL CHANGE?
For experts on the legal profession like Nanda and Law School Professor David
B. Wilkins ’77, there has not been a better time in the last 30 years for
structural reforms to take shape in the industry.
“I’m in the Rahm Emmanuel camp,” Wilkins said. “Never let a crisis go
Now that the boom years are over for Wall St. and the law firms it patronized,
Nanda said that firms will need to start outsourcing many of their basic legal
services and improve the quality and performance of their associates.
“We teach students how to think like lawyers and firms teach them how to be
lawyers on the client’s dime,” Wilkins said.
That system simply is not tenable in a tighter legal market, Nanda said.
In the past, associates have climbed the pay-scale in lock-step with their
recruiting class at set intervals. Associates are guaranteed job advancement
and firms faced steadily escalating costs in the absence of a system that
incentivizes high performance. According to Wilkins, a competency-based system
would force associates to meet bench-marks before gaining a promotion.
Reforming this system poses a typical adversarial cooperation problem for
firms who fear that other firms might cheat the system by keeping the old
methods in place and attracting the best recruits with a cushy compensation
system. But Wilkins said that the financial crisis has placed sufficient
pressure on the legal industry to make cooperative reform possible.
“Some types of financial transactional work in structured financial products
which required high leverages—that work has gone away and for a long period
of time,” said Nanda.
Much of that transactional work had been the responsibility of summer
associates and entry level associates. But now firms are reducing the overall
number of summer associates and are placing greater demands on the few that
they do hire, said Brian T. Aune, a third year student who has spent the last
two summers working at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton.
If the financial sector returns to its previous size, law firms may recover
some of the positions lost to a decrease in transactional work, but that is
unlikely to occur in the near future, Nanda said.
Nanda and Wilkins both say that associates can expect that much of their bread
and butter work will be outsourced in the future, potentially decreasing
demand for associates.
“There are alternate of forms of delivery for that type of work,” Nanda
said. “Discovery and other large volume work will likely go to India and the
According to Wilkins, the bottom line is this: associates can expect to see
lower entry-level salaries.
“Some of my students might not appreciate this, but I think it’s a good
thing,” he said with a laugh.