Building a Better Legal Profession :: The Old Blog


High Billables & Attrition take their toll on Summer Recruiting by andrewcanter
May 11, 2007, 7:21 am
Filed under: Law reform

Next week’s National Law Journal asks why many students are turning down large law firm summer programs:

Tom Nosewicz interviewed with about 15 top law firms during Stanford Law School’s recruiting season last fall. All promised big money, engaging work and a shot at full-time employment once he completed his law degree.

“I did so many interviews it was sort of ridiculous. I felt like a salesman,” said Nosewicz, who just finished his second year at Stanford.

Later this month, he’ll head to New York to begin that summer job. But he has decided against filling a slot at one of the big firms that courted him last fall. Instead, he has taken a job without pay at the federal defender’s office, where he said he’ll get “on-the-ground training” not available as a summer associate at a megafirm.

Nosewicz, 26, is part of a faction of law students at top schools whom associate-hungry law firms are salivating over, but who nevertheless are rejecting big firms’ advances for what they say are more meaningful summer jobs.

Although the majority of law school graduates continue to take jobs in the private sector, the percentage of jobs at private firms — particularly large ones — has declined each year since the class of 2001. At the same time, the number of attorney jobs across all sectors has increased, according to NALP, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks legal employment. In addition, the number of graduates has remained at about 40,000 for several years.

The upshot is that while the number of overall jobs taken has escalated by 12%, large-firm positions make up an increasingly smaller percentage of those jobs.

“Here’s my sense: Many students are concerned about increasing billable-hour expectations and high attrition rates at large law firms,” said Andrew Canter, co-founder of Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession. The organization of more than 100 law students from top schools last month called on big firms to reduce billable-hour requirements and implement balanced-life programs, at reduced pay to associates, if necessary. Canter also recently completed his second year at Stanford Law School.

“Firms can reach out to more top law students by addressing high attrition rates and setting sustainable billable expectations,” he said.

As one student at Penn put it, 

“You can’t pay me enough to be unhappy,” said Amanda Marzullo, a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who recently finished her second year. This summer, she will be working at Kairys, Rudovsky, Epstein & Messing, a small criminal defense and civil rights firm in Philadelphia. As at Stanford, students at her school are highly recruited by big law firms.

Susan Robinson, Director of Career Services at Stanford Law, added that students who go to firms are looking to stay for a shorter duration:

“Ten years ago, you went to a firm and stayed three to four years. Now students are looking more in the one- to two-year time frame,” Robinson said.

. . .

Recruitment is expensive for law firms.  There are significant costs for renting out interview rooms at law schools ($600 per room per day, at some schools), the lost billable attorney time spent on actual interviewing, flights and hotels for callbacks, the summer events, the summer lunches, lost billable attorney time spent on summer events and lunches, and, of course, the summer salary, which at many firms is about $3,000 a week.

Don’t get me wrong — students think the summer programs are fun, even if they’re not an accurate depiction of life at the firm.  But students also know that the fun comes at a cost, and that we’ll end up paying for it when we’re associates.  It’s common knowledge around school that associates bill more hours than ever before, with very little chance of making partner (much less equity partner), and aren’t happy about it. 

This unhappiness is borne out in high attrition rates, which average around 20% a year among large law firms.  The personal costs of attrition are significant, but there are substantial financial costs to firms and clients as well.  Many associates leave after a couple of years, and firms that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of partner/associate/staff time in recruiting and training new attorneys have just lost their investment before the associate is most profitable.  Each associate departure costs the firm approximately $250,000, according to Joan Williams at the Center for WorkLife Law. 

There’s so much room for innovation in this sector.  The current system is costly, inefficient, and unproductive; and students are looking for firms that think and act differently.  It remains to be seen which firms will start to seriously confront these issues and appeal to the next generation of attorneys.

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