If the ways firms decide to defer associates, lay off attorneys and cut compensation are any indication, it seems that once one firm gets the ball rolling, an avalanche is soon to follow. Morgan Lewis & Bockius' decision Tuesday to withdraw from 2009 on-campus interviews and forgo a 2010 summer associates program may be the next snowball rolling down the mountain.
Law schools are hoping that's not the case.
Morgan Lewis was the first large firm to nix the 2010 summer program while Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe has decided to delay on-campus recruiting for next year's program. All of this, they say, is in an effort to maximize the number of full-time offers they can give to this year's summer associates -- many of whom won't have a start date until the fall of 2011, which is when 2010 summer associates would have traditionally started.
Part of the thinking in delaying or eliminating recruitment for the next batch of summers -- at least for firms who have deferred first-years -- is to avoid a double class of associates come 2011.
But if several large firms follow the trend of skipping or delaying on-campus recruiting this year, where does that leave the would-be 2010 summers?
Temple University Beasley School of Law's assistant dean for career planning, Melissa Lennon, said it would be "unfortunate" if a number of firms followed Morgan Lewis' lead.
She said that while she is disappointed at the firm's decision, she certainly understands it and said the firm handled it "beautifully." Morgan Lewis was in the unique spot of having delayed two classes -- 2009 and 2010 -- for a full year, she said.
"In a way, if they engaged in fall recruiting this year, they would be creating a bottleneck because they would have two classes starting in 2011," Lennon said. "That's also why I'm really hopeful that other firms will not follow Morgan's lead because other firms do not have this problem."
At a recent Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP) roundtable on hiring, one of the takeaways was that an August start-date for recruiting may no longer be a tenable option.
But just a delay in recruiting to the spring, like what Orrick Herrington decided to do, presents its own challenges, Lennon said.
If some firms recruit in the fall and others in the spring, students who receive fall offers might not know whether to continue on to spring recruiting or "take the bird in the hand," she said.
Those who go through the entire spring recruitment process without receiving an offer will be behind in the game in terms of figuring out plan B. And while Lennon said it might seem silly, she would also be concerned about the February and March weather in the Northeast delaying the process even further.
The one positive to a delayed recruiting period is that students can provide an extra semester's worth of grades to firms rather than relying solely on their first-year performance.
The bottom line, Lennon said, is that things may be changing and schools will have to go with the flow. She said she just hopes it's an open dialogue between law schools and law firms.
"If this is the model that firms are going to use, then schools will have to adjust," she said, adding later, "this would be a decision that each law firm has to make according to their business model and it certainly makes some sense that they would want to wait until spring to make decisions about what their entry level needs might be."
Heather Frattone, associate dean for career planning and placement at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, said both Morgan Lewis and Orrick Herrington have pulled out of on-campus recruitment at the school this year. Frattone was one of the 19 people on NALP's roundtable in late June.
"We recognize that these decisions are really difficult for firms to make in terms of their long-term planning and recruitment strategy," she said. "We're working as closely as we can with firms to support them in their talent management."
But the news is still disappointing for the 2011 graduates, Frattone said. The school is confident, however, that its graduates will have very long, successful careers regardless.
"It's just a matter of managing how they start," she said.
Penn still has a number of large local, national and international firms signed on for recruiting this year and Frattone said she still believes a good chunk of the 2011 graduates will have an opportunity to summer at large firms. But she said the school recognizes the numbers might not be as high as they were in the past, so the school is working with students on their long-term career goals to determine the best way to start down that path.
Morgan Lewis had previously announced as part of its deferral of 2009 first-years that any offers for this year's summer associate class would be for 2011, so it may not have come as a huge surprise that they had to deal with the bottleneck issue. Firms such as Dechert and Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll have made significant deferrals of 2009 first-year associates as well, but it is unclear whether that will affect recruiting for 2010 and 2011.
Ballard Spahr delayed its 2009 first-year associate class by one year to the fall of 2010. Dechert instituted staggered start dates for its 2009 class, starting in October 2009, then in March 2010 and then in the fall of 2010.
Calls to the firms to ask about plans for this year's recruiting and next year's summer program were not returned by press time.