Tough Job Market for Law School Students

The recession has changed the ways that top law firms recruit candidates.

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The recession might be easing, but that doesn't mean law students will have an easier time finding jobs at top firms this fall, the New York Times reports.

Law students are competing for about half as many openings at the country's most prominent firms as their classmates were last year. For the first time in decades, the promise of a lucrative corporate law career for top students is uncertain, and in response, growing numbers of students are considering firms in smaller markets, opportunities in government, and jobs with public interest groups.

How bad is it?

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the juggernaut of New York, has slashed its hiring by more than half. For the first time in 136 years, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a respected Philadelphia firm, has canceled its recruiting entirely. Global firms like DLA Piper and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe have postponed recruiting for several months to see if the market improves.

At Yale, students accustomed to being wooed by Big Law's glittering names—like Baker & McKenzie; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, & McCloy; and White & Case—were stunned when those firms canceled interviews in New Haven this month.

New York, Georgetown, and Northwestern universities all confirm that the number of interviews they are hosting on campus has dropped by one third to one half compared with a year ago, and less prestigious law schools are suffering even more.

As law school costs have skyrocketed over the years, the unspoken agreement between students and the most expensive schools has strengthened—students take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to attend the most prestigious schools, and in return, the schools' reputations and career services departments help students land jobs at top firms with hefty starting salaries conducive to paying down that debt.

"It was thought to be this green pasture of stability, a more comfortable life," says NYU law student Derek Fanicullo, who decided to become a lawyer after losing his job as a television reporter and who had heard that 90 percent of NYU law graduates landed jobs at firms. "It was almost written in stone that you'll end up in a law firm, almost like a birthright."

But this expectation is no longer a reality for students like Fanicullo, who belong to the class of 2011.

The timing is worst for the class of 2011, the second-years now looking to get into firms, because of a unique logjam created last year. After the September financial crisis, firms chose to defer their new hires at the price of steeply cutting recruiting this year.

But students who miss the brief window of opportunity to land an offer this fall may struggle to break into firms once next year's class rises. When Julia Figurelli, a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to enter law school a year ago, she expected to find a lucrative law firm job in three years—if not collecting the $160,000-a-year associate salaries at one of the uppermost partnerships. By the time she obtains her J.D., she says, she will have around $200,000 in debt.

"Had I seen where the market was going, I would've gone to a lower-ranked but less expensive public school," she said. "I'm questioning whether law school was the right choice at all."

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