by Conor Friedersdorf

A couple years back a close friend landed a job at one of America's most prestigious law firms upon finishing her degree. Then the firm realized that it over-hired. As a result, it didn't retract its offer, but offered her roughly $80,000 to wait a year before starting. She did non-profit work in the interim, and never did wind up going back.

That must seem like an unbelievable story to a lot of people, but despite the economy, that kind of thing is still going on, as this reader explains:

I recently graduated from a top law school and find myself on exactly the path you describe.  Firms do indeed seek out graduates of the most elite law schools because clients want their work done by graduates of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc. if only because they have no other way to judge the quality of the newly minted lawyers who will be doing the leg work on their offerings and mergers documents.  You'll probably be deluged with replies critiquing and defending the legal recruitment system so I'll just mention a perverse side effect the current recession is having on the hiring of the public interest lawyers you mentioned in your post.
 
Top law firms are highly constrained by the need to preserve their reputation and relationships with the elite law school that feed their ranks each fall.  It's very difficult for a law school student to differentiate between top firms (called "BigLaw" in the industry) when making employment choices, so any negative press can severely damage a firm's recruitment at a given school.  It's a big reason why fresh law recruits with few substantive skills and even less real world experience command high salaries and are treated with kid gloves as summer associates.  Now, the economic downturn has led to a lot less legal fees for these big firms and they've understandably cut back on recruitment.  But what to do with someone in my position?  I was given an offer of employment but was then told that there wasn't enough work to justify bringing me on board at the market rate for 1st year associates.  Firms in almost every other industry would immediately tell me "sorry but we need to let you go" and I'd be out looking for work like millions of other Americans.  But elite laws firms don't work that way.  They're too worried I'd go back and tell my friends and the recruitment office at my law school that so-and-so firm laid me off before I started.  Then, next fall, students from my school would shun the firm and they'd be unable to hire those elite grads that their clients love so much.  So instead I've been "deferred" from my job till fall of 2011 and am drawing a salary from the firm that exceeds the median income in this country, despite the fact that I'm not working.  I don't claim to be anything other than the luckiest person I know.

And it gets even more ridiculous.  My firm has instructed us that they'd like to see us doing some pro bono work while we wait out our (paid) deferral periods.  This sounds like a noble thing to do, till you realize that now hundreds (thousands?) of newly graduated elite law students are flooding the public interest legal market and can work for literally nothing.  All those kids who went to law school and wanted to do government service, help the homeless, defend the indigent and any number of other worthy causes just saw their chances of landing one of the few top pro bono jobs go up in smoke.  I know I personally put both a legal assistant and a part-time paralegal out of a job when I started volunteering at a non-profit in Manhattan.  It's a boon to the public interest organizations but a disaster for those lawyers who eschewed the big firm, big money path.

A lot of people are predicting that the Big Law model is never going to recover after the current recession. I don't have any insight into that question except to say that I think the United States would be a better country if there were less incentive for so many bright people to spend their twenties doing grunt work at big law firms.

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