What's The Point Of Lawyer Job Deferrals?

Bloomberg today has another in a growing glut of articles about how bad the job market is for law students. One common fate of the luckier law students these days is receiving deferred offers from big law firms. Basically, that consists of the firms saying something like: "Listen. We want to hire you, but the economy really stinks, and times are really bad. So here's a chunk of money for you to enjoy for the time being, and you can work for us next year." Maybe I'm missing something, but I just don't see the point.

First, quick note about the Bloomberg piece -- quick because this topic is not that shocking of a discovery at this point. But it's worth a little explanation. It says:

DLA Piper LLP, the 11th-highest-grossing U.S. law firm, is deferring full-time start dates of first-year associates, originally scheduled for this fall, until January.

This summer's interns who are offered jobs won't start for at least a year, in January 2011 or January 2012, according to an internal memo at the firm.

A third-year friend of mine at Harvard Law is exactly in this boat. He was a summer associate at a top firm who said that they'd love to have him work for them -- just not right now. So they've given him a deferred job offer.

What I'm first confused about is -- what happens when the economy improves? Presumably, all of those deferred lawyers will be waiting in the wings. So they'll eagerly begin their job, say, a year late. Yet, at that time, wouldn't there already be another class of law school grads waiting to begin a job as well?

This leads me to question two things. First, this seems to imply that, as bad as it is to be a third-year law student this year, it will be much, much worse next year. With the economy still sputtering, and hundreds of deferred graduates about to start, what happens to the next class? Will there be any need at all for them? It doesn't seem like there would be.

Second, why wouldn't the law firms just not hire anyone this year instead of deferring? As I just pointed out, there will be a fresh new class next year with plenty of talent to go around in an already flooded job market for lawyers. Why bother paying this year's grads to do nothing when next year's grads will eagerly take those positions then?

It just doesn't seem to make much business sense. I understand firms' fear that they could miss out on this year's most talented, but there will be plenty of talented applicants next year as well. If there's one thing there's no shortage of, it's students graduating law school each year.



A lawyer friend of mine explained that law firms do this mostly to save face with top law schools. The recruitment effort from top law schools to top law firms is different from recruitment in most other industries. The schools decide which students go where -- not the firms. So if a firm doesn't play ball and burns a school's class, then the firm risks the school's scorn and losing future talent. So in the long term, deferrals make sense, mostly because of the legal profession's very strange way of acquiring top talent.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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