How Our Professional Elites Are Hired, Cont'd

by Conor Friedersdorf

Thanks for all the e-mails about America's professional elite and how they're hired. One frequently offered remark: the economic slowdown means that things aren't as lavish as they once were. Below the fold, a selection of other reader responses.

A reader writes:

I'm currently employed by one of these "elite" organizations--a corporate law firm ranked among the top 10 most prestigious in the country, year after year.  I came in at the height of the boom in 2007, when the recruiting was more lavish than ever. Most of what you speculate is correct.  As a "summer associate," I ate 3-5 meals a week at the most expensive restaurants in New York, for twelve weeks (!)  Our per-person budget for these was (and is) $60, but we frequently went over and were reimbursed anyway.  I ate at Le Bernardin, Jean Georges, Gramercy Tavern, Gotham, Daniel, the Four Seasons...the list goes on.

We also played a ball game at then-Shea stadium, had a dinner dance at the Museum of Natural History, and shot "experience New York" movies which we edited and then watched at a movie theater on the east side that we rented out for the evening.  It's also the only time I've ever had Johnny Walker Blue Label. By the end of the summer, I felt like a glutton.  But it wasn't like I tried to act lavishly--it was just what happened. The only part of your analysis that I don't fit into is the Ivy League-only hiring.  While that's by and large the case, the top law firms do hire a select few students from outside the very top (say, top 15 law schools), who do extremely well academically.  That was me, and a few of my friends.

Other than that, are the recruiting practices at these places disgusting?  Yes.  And it's also completely unnecessary, especially in this economy, where even the best and brightest are praying for jobs.

Another writes:

In college, I interviewed for BCG, Mercer, and others of the strategy consulting firms: the expense account laden four seasons Boston stay for my interview with BCG come to mind and one comment sticks with me and it is, in some respect true, "Don't hesitate to order room service at $40 instead of $15 buffet downstairs, if it offers you the peace of mind and calmness that you need to come in and ace the interview. We are being billed out at $200+ per hour, spending the extra $30 on a limo or an extra $400 on a flight is worth it if the hours or effort saved and the comfort gained lets you work more gainfully and usefully and deliver value to our clients or internal clients".

This is a balance, but to some degree, there is some benefit to valuing comfort at a client's dollar since a client would be annoyed to learn that they are paying $200/hr for you to sit in transit in Chicago Midway Airport!

Says another:

I am a graduate of the City University of NY and Harvard Law School.  Coming from a city university system, I didn't have the same sense of entitlement when I got to Harvard that some of my classmates did.  That all changed very quickly.  By the start of my second year in law school, recruiting was in full swing.  Firms came to Cambridge to wine and dine us, and to tell us how wonderful they all were.  After all, they must be wonderful if they won't even look at an HLS student with less than straight "A"s.  Even with my middle of the road grades, I scored numerous call-back interviews in my chosen city, NY.  Harvard gave us a week off from school to allow us to fly out to our chosen cities and interview.  Many of my classmates took the opportunity to fly to multiple cities on the law firms' dimes.  I flew to NY and stayed for almost a week in a 5 star hotel, even though my parents lived in the NY suburbs.  Every day, a different firm took me out for a lunch interview at a fancy restaurant.

When I finally chose the firm at which I would spend my summer, I picked a big (but not huge) Wall St. firm that had something of a niche practice.  At a time when large law firms were growing and merging to become mega-firms, my firm made a conscious decision to continue to print money in their niche practice areas, rather than risking losing everything in an expansion.  So we didn't have the fly-out dinners you describe.  But all the Harvard students were taken to a special meal at Nobu, and many other fancy dinners and lunches in NY were held.  There were also myriad events like parties in the Central Park Boathouse and the obligatory day spent at the gargantuan estate of a corporate partner (the "this-could-one-day-be-yours" trip).  I was even flown to Washington by that same partner to attend the dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan.

It was difficult not to feel entitled after going through such a process, and it messed me up for years.  I realized that the lifestyle of working 16 hour days for life was not for me,but it was difficult to give up the perks.  I finally extricated myself from that work and that world, but now, as I practice at a small boutique law firm in NYC, and sometimes struggle to pay my mortgage, I can't help but think what might have been had I stayed at BigLaw.  The entitlement is corrosive and takes a long time to wipe off.

My wife graduated from a 4th tier law school and has had a completely different experience.  Six years after graduating she has yet to find full time employment and has never been wined or dined by anyone.  Yet her work ethic is at least as good as those BigLaw lawyers and she would be a tremendous asset to any firm that would have her.  But, as you correctly point out, law is a conservative game, and no one ever got fired for hiring the guy (or gal) from Harvard.  If someone took a chance on hiring my wife and she didn't work out, you can bet heads would roll.

Says another reader:

Though I didn't come to law school to work for a big law firm, the $40k+ in debt I've accrued in just my first year has made me think twice about entering the public sector, so I took part in our school's interview last week.  Over the course of the week, I had 15 20-minute interviews with partners from offices of nearly all of the top international law firms.  On the basis of these short interviews -- which barely give you enough time to say anything about yourself -- firms decide on who to call back to the home office for follow up, in-depth interviews with multiple partners and associates.

Big law firms recruit students for summer positions for the summer following the second year of law school, for which they are paid wages equivalent to those they would receive as a new associate.  Currently, that is around $3100 a week -- typically for 10 weeks -- and that doesn't include the kind of perks you mentioned that might be thrown in to sweeten the deal as far as comped meals and trips.  Of course, typically a summer associate position is a trial run for the full associate position after graduation, with starting salaries pegged industry-wide at around $165k a year.

It is a competitive, stressful, and ridiculous process.  Competition begins with grades, of course, and with first year GPAs being the easiest way to make snap judgments about candidates, any student has really been competing for this job against classmates on the curve the whole previous year.  And, with firms hiring less this year than in years past (though more than in the last two years, apparently), the competition has just gotten more fierce.  There's an enormous amount of stress in pushing yourself through so many interviews where you have only 20 minutes to make any sort of impression on a person who will see as many as 20 other candidates that day.  The ridiculousness of the process is how firms make these snap judgments on GPA and first impressions in 20-minute interviews to close or open the door to that elite law life.  Of course, anyone going to a school like UCLA just outside the T14, might pull back and comment on the ridiculousness of making a snap judgment purely on rankings in an issue of a magazine -- particularly one nobody seems to read anymore except for the rankings.

Then again, elite law firms require a certain kind of high-achieving person, perhaps one motivated by a need to outcompete his or peers, or one with the willingness to put aside all other considerations in order to succeed professionally, or one inordinately obsessed by dreams of lucre.  Some of the best students in my classes are borderline sociopaths, and maybe they'll make the best partners.

A lawyer writes

As someone who works at one of the elite national law firms you're describing and is involved in the hiring process, I thought I would weigh in on this discussion.  I disagree with the suggestion that the hiring process is about anything other than luring the best talent. While it's certainly true that summer associates are spoiled with food, drink, and entertainment during their summer stints with firms (though far less so now than they used to be, due to the state of the economy), the ONLY motivation behind this expenditure of money is to compete with other firms.  If you don't offer a summer program comparable to your peer firms, the concern is that the talent will go elsewhere.  Law firms depend on a steady pipeline of new talent.  They can't survive without it.  Believe me when I say that firms would like nothing better than to avoid spending money on this stuff, but they feel they have no choice.  It's not about getting people used to lives of privilege.  If it were, the wining and dining wouldn't be limited to summer associates but would include all associates.  But it doesn't. It stops as soon as you start work full time. It's solely about wooing people. 

Says a management consultant:

We don't hire predominantly at the Ivy leagues to be able to tout the resumes of our teams, but rather because it's far more efficient to interview 200 Harvard students and make offers to 50+ of them than to interview 200 state university students to find the 3 worth giving offers to.

Yet another reader says:

...attorneys who "sacrifice" to work for the government, at least if they work for the federal government, have punched a golden ticket for themselves and they know it. Sure they get paid half of what many of their peers make now, but they don't have to work 60 hour weeks, get better legal training, and will be snapped up by law firms and placed straight into partnership after about ten years. What's better than sending your problem with the SEC to a bunch of Harvard grads? Sending your problem to a bunch of former attorneys for the SEC. My friends that work for the DoJ are incredibly honest, so while I see your point regarding the temptation, I don't see it in practice. I do, however, see the resentment and difficulty watching your friends take trips to Europe while you're in a hotel in Topeka reminding yourself that you chose this.