Building a Better Legal Profession :: The Old Blog

The Strange World of Law Firm Recruiting by refirm2007
November 13, 2007, 11:28 pm
Filed under: Law reform

Some thoughts on the incredible recruiting system employed by large law firms, by Irene Hahn, a student at Stanford Law School:

If you’re looking for evidence of the market power of law students, look no further than the nature of law firm recruiting. It’s a strange place, really.

In major U.S. markets, the median starting salary for associates at large firms is $145,000, and many firms begin at $160,000. Oftentimes that doesn’t include an annual bonus, which can be significant: as reported in the New York Times, Cravath recently announced that associates will receive a one-time bonus of between $10,000 and $50,000 on top of the starting salary of $160,000. This bonus has since been matched by other firms.

For all that cash, you’d think that the selection process would be grueling, subjecting would-be associates to tough questions evaluating their analytical skills and motivations. But the reality? Not nearly as grueling as you’d expect, as a recent article in the American Lawyer reported:

It’s a scary prospect, meeting with partners at a big firm about a job. But, as one law student who landed a summer position at Latham & Watkins quickly realized, the pre-interview jitters were the hardest part. “I don’t think through the entire interview process I got one difficult question,” he says. In fact, the partners he met weren’t all that interested in his academic work or his future career: “Almost everyone I talked to did fantasy football and was really interested in talking about their inner-firm leagues,” he says. Partners might have been trying to make a connection with him by chatting about the trivial, but as the Latham summer puts it: “You don’t feel you are being seriously vetted for a position.”

Ask law firm recruits — particularly those from elite schools — about the recruiting experience, and the stories are fairly similar: Short interviews, shallow questions and a sheaf of boilerplate marketing materials. It’s not much better on the other side of the equation. To find qualified candidates, firms respond to cattle calls at top law schools. There, partners meet 20 students a day for 20 minutes at a time for several days in a row. On the basis of those meetings, students are called back for a series of 30-minute office interviews. If a student is from a good school, has an acceptable resume, and decent social skills, he or she is practically guaranteed an offer for a summer position within 24 hours of the office visit. And nine times out of 10, a summer job leads to an offer for a full-time associate position.

It’s a far cry from, say, an interview at a consulting firm or investment bank, where candidates are asked to perform case studies and explain how they have dealt with difficult situations in the past.

The reason for the ease of law firm interviews is simple: lots of spaces, not enough qualified candidates to fill them. Firms don’t want to antagonize a good candidate who might turn them down just because their interview was too hard. As reported in the article, demand for associates continues to rise-in the last decade, the number of associates increased 76 percent at the largest 250 law firms, while the number of law school graduates rose just 7 percent.

It’s not uncommon for students at the top law schools to get multiple offers. For instance, a summer associate with Covington & Burling said that “he gave all his interviewers an apparently believable reason for why he wanted to work at their firm, even though he really had no idea. He did 12 interviews and got 11 callbacks and ten offers.” It’s not so much a matter of whether you’ll get a job, but where you want to work.

So how do you choose between firms? For many students, the choice is an arbitrary one:

Students … have problems vetting firms. They aren’t helped much by firm marketing materials, which often say the same thing and make firms indistinguishable from each other. “They all tell you they have great clients, and they work hard but [have] a very collegial atmosphere,” says [a] Stanford student. “It’s the same discourse over and over again.”

The nature of the recruiting process makes it tough to assess how happy you’re going to be at any one firm. Associates leave law firms at astonishingly high rates-40% leave by the end of their third year, 62% by the end of their fourth. Some of the reasons have to do with quality of life issues or disillusionment with the work itself; others have to do with despair at the low possibility of advancement, which can be far worse for women and minorities. In all these cases, it’s a no-brainer that some way of distinguishing between firms might have been helpful when you were trying to decide where to go.

Our hope is that rankings such as the ones put out by BBLP will help make students more informed consumers about the professional choices you are about to make. We have the right to choose law firms on the basis of more than just first impressions of the office or the quality of the restaurant the recruiters take you to, which are bad criteria anyway for making a decision that will shape the next several years of your life.

Look at their diversity statistics. Look at their pro bono record. Look at how many women actually make partner. By choosing the firms who have something more to offer its young associates, we can get the firms who aren’t doing as good a job to change their practices.

The bottom line: the firms need us more than we need them. Don’t be afraid to be selective.


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