We all know that there has been an increasing imbalance between the number of students graduating from law school and the number of jobs that are open to them.
After the American legal sector more than tripled in inflation-adjusted growth between 1970 and 1987, it now grows at a steady 1.2% annually; less than half as fast as the rest of our economy.1
Many students “simply cannot earn enough income after graduation to support the debt they incur,” writes Richard Matasar, dean of New York Law School.1 But what does this mean for those people who are already well-established in the profession? Are there alternate ways to hire recent graduates without jeopardizing the health of your practice? Below we survey two options that some law firms have been exploring recently.
Some law firms have begun a practice of hiring people known as “career associates”; full-fledged lawyers who do the same types of work as would be expected, but earn less than half the usual starting wage, and are not on a track to make partner.3 This scenario sounds fairly bleak, but there are rewards as well; career associates work fewer hours and travel much less, so the position is more family-friendly and significantly less demanding.
While this potential position has mainly applied to recent graduates, many who have chosen this path are quite content with their career. Heather Boylan Clark was a seventh-year associate at Jones Day, but she chose to apply for a career associate position after the birth of her second child. She makes less money, but says her work is still challenging and, more importantly, she has greater control of her schedule. 3
In 2009 as the recession grew, some law firms that had already made job offers to students made the decision to give the graduates a deferral before starting work for the firm. This deferral would reduce their costs, but still allow them to hold on to graduates who looked like bright prospects. With a stipend of $60,000 to $75, 000 and up to a year’s time to spend it, many chose to spend their year in the public sector.2 Jennifer Romig, a University of Chicago graduate, spent her time at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in New Orleans. “Like most law students, I had intentions of doing pro bono work,” said Ms. Romig. “Now, after having spent an entire year seeing what a difference you can make, the theoretical has become real. And I cannot imagine forgetting that.” 2
This kind of arrangement seems to have been beneficial for all parties concerned; the law firms were able to welcome seasoned professionals back to their promised positions, instead of fresh graduates. The graduates received valuable experience with the kind of personal service that large law firms are rarely able to offer to new associates. And with their free aid, the non-profit organizations that people like Jennifer Romig worked for were able to offer more to their communities than would otherwise have been possible in this economic climate.
Tiela Chalmers of the Volunteer Legal Services Program in San Francisco, believes that without the help of the seven deferred associates she took on for a year, her group would not have been able to handle half of the cases they were given.2 “It’s a win-win,” she says, “even if public interest firms have to take on the training.”