Elite Law Firms Are Handing Out Job Offers Earlier Than Ever

  • Law firms have historically recruited and interviewed students at the start of their second year.
  • But firms such as Latham & Watkins now interview some students before they finish their first year.
  • Law schools bemoan the trend, but more and more of them allow it, such as Harvard and NYU this year.

The nation’s biggest and most powerful law firms have always sought to hire the best and brightest students from top law schools. But this year, some legal-industry professionals say the competition has gotten out of control.

Latham & Watkins, which hires about 300 students a year for its 10-week summer program, has told law schools that it has made 2023 summer-job offers to so many students ahead of the traditional period for on-campus interviews, or OCI, that it expects to conduct fewer OCI interviews this year, three people familiar with the firm’s strategy said.

Other elite firms — including Weil, Skadden, and Davis Polk — have also been making large numbers of early offers. At Simpson Thacher, a partner said, “We probably did half our interviewing before the formal OCI process.”

Working at a law firm after a student’s second year, or 2L, has long been a rite of passage for students bound for Big Law. “Summer associates” are paid about $4,000 a week at top firms and get the chance to do legal research, eat nice meals on the company’s dime, and meet the people they’ll likely be working with after graduation — because upwards of 90% of them get an offer to return full time.

But as recruiting for such roles has crept earlier, some law-firm recruiters and student advisors say the process has become chaotic and unfair. Some students have gotten offers before their first year is even over. And some law firms have pressured students to accept before they have a chance to interview with other law firms, raising the risk that they might be a year into their post-law-school employment and realize they made a mistake, some student advisors said.

Even some law firms are miffed. “Now, it’s just like the Wild West,” said a law-firm partner who has been interviewing students for his firm. The partner, who didn’t have permission to speak publicly, said some students have been showing up to OCI interviews with “three or four offers” already in hand.

Bare-knuckle recruiting tactics

There used to be a cadence to recruiting. First-year students could attend information sessions and career panels, and a few would get summer-associate roles after their 1L year. Many of them would work for a law professor, for a public-sector or nonprofit employer, or as an intern in a judge’s chambers in their first summer.

That way, students being interviewed in July or August before their 2L year have two semesters of grades — and a summer of work — under their belt. And they’ve had some time to meet and network with practicing lawyers, giving them a better sense of the trade and what they may want to do.

Most students still follow this track, but law-firm recruiters are increasing tracking their interactions with students with an eye toward making them an offer before they’re even on the radar of competitors. Gary Miles, who taught and coached basketball to middle and high schoolers before becoming a legal recruiter in 2007, compared to it to the way college scouts have also looked at younger athletes.

“You’d see some kid in eighth grade getting a scholarship based on their potential and talent,” he said.

Some law students are now entering recruiting talks in the spring of their 1L year. School administrators say it’s often the students who get the ball rolling by submitting résumés via a firm’s website after meeting a partner at a school meet and greet.

“Who they’re probably targeting most with this process is the law students who have the most impressive grades, the most impressive experience, at the top schools, and also diverse candidates,” said Jackie Bokser LeFebvre, a recruiter at Major Lindsey & Africa .

Some schools have threatened to ban law firms from participating in OCI if they engage in pre-OCI recruiting. But in recent years, some schools have backed down from those threats. In 2021, the UC Berkeley School of Law said that “current market realities” forced its hand. This year, law schools at both Harvard and NYU even unveiled formal early-interview programs.

Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania still ban pre-OCI recruiting, their websites said. Other schools require pre-OCI offers to stay open until OCI, so a student can compare firms. But not all firms respect the rules, and students sometimes are afraid to invoke them, said David Diamond, an assistant dean at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.

“We’ve seen situations where a student receives an offer, and the offer deadline follows our policy, but the offer is accompanied by a diversity scholarship, and the diversity scholarship expires before or during” OCI, Diamond said.

Jumping the gun

Pre-OCI recruiting has taken off even as law-school enrollment has remained steady. Firms made 370 early offers for summer employment in 2015, the National Association for Law Placement said. Last year, they made 1,771 such offers, amounting to 18% of the offers made by law firms that are engaged in the practice.

It doesn’t appear to have reached the point where dramatically fewer students are participating in OCI, according to Flo Recruit, whose software is used by about 80 law schools to coordinate OCI interviewing for their students. (Despite its name, on-campus interviewing has remained a largely virtual process since the pandemic.) The average number of interviews at Flo Recruit schools fell from 1,063 last year to 1,011 this year, but Katherine Allen, Flo’s CEO, said the company is also working with more schools that traditionally have fewer firms recruiting.

People who work in law firms and law schools expect the number of pre-OCI offers to be higher this year, but they still expect most summer-employment offers to be made during the traditional late-summer recruiting period. And not all law firms are enthusiastic about the practice, even if they take early meetings with students.

“If firms had their preference, they’d like to recruit closer in time to when people would become lawyers,” said Brad Keck, a hiring partner at Mayer Brown. But as pre-OCI has grown, he said, “the lack of order and direction has made it more chaotic.”

Some people trace the boom in early recruiting to a 2019 decision by the NALP to scrap rules that limited firms from courting first-semester law students. The rules were replaced by nonbinding guidelines.

Even schools that allow pre-OCI recruiting are concerned. If students commit to a firm before having the chance to spend a summer working, or having the chance to learn about other law firms, they may have second thoughts.

If a junior associate quits one year into a job to join a nonprofit, the argument goes, everyone gets burned: The lawyer who spent a year doing that job and the law firm that paid them $215,000 in salary and bonus, not to mention the time spent training and mentoring.

“If we let people explore their options, that is a healthier system,” said Lois Casaleggi, an associate dean for career services at the University of Chicago Law School.

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