So Many Lawyers, So Little Opportunity

Could this be a dream? Mary Diepenbrock was all set to go to work for the law firm of Thelen, Marrin, Johnson & Bridges after graduation from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. Then last spring, the San Francisco office offered her and 14 other new law grads the chance to delay their starting dates in return for cold cash. Diepenbrock grabbed the $10,000 and is extending her post-bar-exam travels by three months.

No, it's not a dream. Instead, Diepenbrock demonstrates the current nightmare in the law biz. Battered by recession and cost-conscious clients, firms that fattened up in the 1980s are hurting. They're deferring starting dates for new hires, rescinding job offers, and cutting short cushy summer-intern programs. Even 1991 law grads who can boast jobs are sweating. Already, outplacement counselors say, some members of the class of 1990 have gotten the ax. As Diepenbrock says, times are "horribly tough."

NASTY SHOCK. This year's recruiting season, which is getting started already, promises to be even worse than last. Firms are traveling to fewer schools and sending fewer recruiters. Even the most prosperous firms don't expect to hire as many lawyers. Normally, firms must guess their hiring needs a year in advance--third-year law students who snag jobs this fall won't begin until September, 1992. This season, firms are being overly cautious because of uncertainty about the economy. At the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, Placement Director Nancy Krieger expects a drop of up to 20% in the number of firms visiting the school. That figure, she says, is typical of the experience at other law schools around the U. S.

Since it's no longer a seller's market, law students from New York University to the University of California at Los Angeles are scrambling. In May, incoming associates at Manhattan's Webster & Sheffield were shocked when the firm reneged on its offers of full-time jobs. Weeks later, the firm collapsed. Five second-year students at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin last spring had firms yank their summer jobs at the last minute. In good times, these spots almost inevitably led to full-time positions after graduation.

Rescinded offers and job deferrals were "virtually unheard of until this year," says Lujuana Wolfe Treadwell, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement. But so were the massive layoffs of associates and partners that have rocked even the most prestigious law firms.

At Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, executive partner Peter P. Mullen denies widespread rumors of massive layoffs this year. But Mullen admits that the firm has slowed its recruiting of new lawyers, toughened associate evaluations, and held the line on raises. Mullen says "there's a chance" that Skadden or some other top New York megafirm may cut the going rate for starting salaries. It's now up to $85,000.

All this doom and gloom hasn't scared away law-school applicants. Since the mid-1980s, law schools have pumped out some 35,000 new graduates annually. And an unprecedented 94,000 applicants are competing to enter law school this fall, the fourth consecutive year to set a record, according to Law School Admission Services.

One reason is obvious: moolah. Despite the sharp downturn in legal business last year, associates in U. S. firms with 75 lawyers or more earned an average of $69,000, says a new survey by consultants Altman Weil Pensa Inc. For many college grads, law school also puts off pounding the pavement during a recession. And while the legal market is contracting now, it may be booming by the time today's law students are up for partnership. Alas, they may never have the chance to get paid for not working.

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