Law Students May Regret Snap Career Decisions Made First Year


During my tenure at Major, Lindsey & Africa, I’ve been focused on placing experienced lateral candidates at partner and associate levels at law firms. While partner moves are most often motivated by greater compensation, associate candidates generally seek positions that don’t provide a salary boost.

That approach to job hunting may seem strange, but many candidates I’ve encountered share a misconception that all law firms are the same.

Associates generally move to unlock some other benefit instead of salary—such as a more significant role and responsibility on matters, a shift in client base or industry focus, a better culture, or increased potential to make partner. A defining feature of these lateral moves is that this is usually an “informed decision” after a few years practicing and understanding the industry.

While entry-level (summer associate) hiring isn’t directly in my purview, I spend a lot of time consulting with students at law schools and engaging law firm clients who are eager to share their thoughts about the process.

In the past, there was a frenzied summer associate hiring season, when firms were bound by the National Association for Law Placement guidelines concerning offers and interview periods. This forced firms to evaluate students at schools by taking in the whole package.

This holistic view included first-year grades, journal accomplishments, and extracurricular and pre-law activities, including students’ networking efforts. While the process was often harrowing, there was something remarkable about giving students the same guidelines and access to the same opportunities.

With established rules of summer associate hiring now a distant memory, the process has become even more challenging. It seems that firms are forced to evaluate candidates based just on students’ first-semester grades.

As a result, recruiters have no choice but to fall back on industry standards of school pedigree—and perhaps the student’s social, family, or industry connections—to determine who may be a good hire. Meanwhile, students are forced to make an employment decision without substantive knowledge of the legal profession, let alone which firm they should join. And they won’t even be fully employed until they pass the bar 2 1/2 years later.

When I speak with students, they often share that they feel pressured to accept the first offer they receive due to its short offer period (at times, only two weeks) without fully comprehending the consequences of their choice or evaluating the market. Students often have to pick their practice area at the same time. That choice can be determinative for the rest of their long legal careers.

This situation is a recipe for regret. With such an early timeline, students basically must know the legal market before setting foot into law school.

Students need real-world and significant legal course experience to make informed decisions. I’ve spoken with countless attorneys who have changed career goals after their first-year summer positions. Law school is an opportunity to try out different practice areas through classes, clerkships, internships, externships, and research associate positions before settling on a career path.

Sure, some students come to school knowing exactly what they want to do (often because family members are lawyers or have paralegal experience). But for those new to the legal arena, having that time to evaluate is crucial. This is especially true because so many law students go from straight through schooling to getting their law degree, with very little work experience.

I can’t help but recall my own experience. During my 1L summer, I had the dream job of working in the in-house department of a prestigious fashion company. However, over the course of the summer, I realized that work wasn’t for me.

Had I pursued that path based on what I knew as a six-month 1L, I would have ended up incredibly unhappy five years later with no easy way out. Junior associates often lament to me that they want to switch practice areas, but firms are unwilling because it doesn’t make business sense after the training they’ve invested. That is logical.

With both sides of the equation working with little or even bad data, there are bound to be significant repercussions within the workforce. One of the most alarming casualties could be law firms’ commitment to diversity.

Many attorneys of color are the first in their family or network to attend law school. They often find it’s difficult to evaluate law firms without prior knowledge of the industry. This isn’t insurmountable. For many, law school is the first time to network with other lawyers to educate themselves on the industry.

There are many reasons not to attend a Top 14 school, including its big financial risk. I often advise stellar students to go to the school that will allow access to prestigious firms but that will provide the least financial liability—because scholarships are often awarded to students who have the potential to excel among their classmates.

If law firms can’t take a holistic look at the candidates, they will likely narrow their search to the top law schools. In turn, they will miss a sizable and valuable talent pool.

When I speak with New York Big Law partners about which associates tend to excel, they always highlight those who didn’t go to a T14 school but instead were at the top of their class at less-renowned law schools.

The current state of summer associate hiring forces law students to make hasty decisions with lifelong repercussions. It too often denies disadvantaged groups, as well as top students at lower-ranked schools, the opportunity to make informed decisions on where to start pursuing a Big Law career.

What once was an imperfect but slightly more equitable process has turned into an impossible conundrum.


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