May 5, 2009

Firms put jobs on hold for Law School graduates

Many graduating students at the University of Chicago Law School are scurrying to make plans post-graduation, after being deferred for up to 18 months from the law firms that hired them after internships last summer.

Law students typically spend the summer between their second and third year interning for a law firm. If the internship goes well, firms generally offer the student a job for after they graduate the following year. Law firms that offered students jobs at the end of last summer are realizing that they no longer have the capacity to hire new associates and are deferring the hires with the hope that the economy will pick up by the time the graduates begin work.

"I've never seen anything like this level of deferral," said Abbie Willard, Associate Dean of Career Services and Policy Initiatives at the Law School.

Approximately 80 per cent of the Law School's graduating class signs up with large private law firms, which are more likely to defer, Willard said. Many of the medium and small firms aren't hiring at all. "Not all of those law students have the luxury of joining very large law firms," she said.

Deferrals range from a couple of months to a year-and-a-half, and some students are being offered various forms of compensation. Some firms are providing graduates with lump sums or monthly payments that are less than their full salaries.

Some graduates who choose to do public interest work during their hiatus will be paid up to half of the full salary. The public interest work they will be doing runs the gamut, from working as public defenders to working for cause organizations like the Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, to volunteering work for other nonprofits.

One graduating law student, who wished to remain anonymous due to her law firm's nondisclosure policy, had a conference call two weeks ago with the firm that offered her a job at the end of last summer. The firm told all incoming hires that the firm would be deferring half the people they planned to hire. Last week, they told her that she would be deferred up to a year.

The student will receive a $1,700 monthly stipend—about $20,000 for the year—much less than the $100,000 or so she expected to earn. After she received a job offer last summer, she bought a condominium that she fears she will no longer be able to afford. She may live at home and rent out the condo during her deferral.

“For not working, [the stipend] isn't bad, but it is not really enough to pay for the cost of the condo,” she said. She is considering doing public interest work or finding a clerk position. She said a number of other students are considering returning home as well, a growing trend among college graduates across the nation.

Some law firms are providing health insurance, but concerns among students whose firms are not providing insurance are being alleviated by the University’s Alumni Association health care plan.

Brett Reynolds, a third-year at the law school who has a job lined up after graduation, said many students are worried about how a long recession might affect their careers beyond the deferrals. "Their worry is that when they eventually start work at their firm, they will be the first ones in line to get laid off," he said.

First- and second-year law students are also worried that they won't get the internships and job offers they need to begin their careers. “Some of our [summer] associate programs are going to be much smaller and they're going to be much shorter in duration, and in some cases, the salaries have been reduced up to 10 percent,” Willard said. The firms are “making it clear that they won’t necessarily hire next year,” she said.

Willard said Career Services has been working one-on-one with deferred students to help them make choices about what to do post-graduation. They have also created an e-mail listhost for deferred students with information about jobs and resources, and are reaching out to alumni for job opportunities.

“I think people have always attended law school on the assumption that they will get those high-paying jobs,” said Reynolds.