The law firm summer associate recruiting system got a big shake-up Wednesday when the National Association of Law Placement announced a major overhaul of its guidelines for on-campus recruiting.

Gone are the recommendations that firms give students 28 days to decide whether to accept a summer associate offer and that they wait until December of the 1L year to begin recruiting law students. In their place are a broader, more flexible set of guidelines that emphasize fairness and transparency without proscribing specific dates or timelines.

The change is intended to prompt more experimentation and innovation in entry-level recruiting, and give firms and schools leeway to decide which practices work best for them, said NALP Executive Director James Leipold.

“This has been a long time coming,” he said. “The market has become so much more diverse. This one-size-fits-all set of standards doesn’t work. Law school graduates are being hired by a much broader range of organizations. Schools have very different employment profiles for their classes. Schools have very different academic calendars.”

Leipold acknowledged that the new standards look like a dramatic change on their face, but cautioned that summer associate recruiting in practice may not actually change that much. First, NALP’s guidelines have never been mandatory, and firms and law schools have always had the ability to deviate if they wanted—though most adhered. And law schools still have the ability to impose their own rules on the employers who recruit on campus, he added. Moreover, law firms tend to follow the market and each other.

“People can continue to do what they’ve always done,” Leipold said. “If a school wants to say, ‘If you’re going to interview on our campus, you still have to leave offers open for 28 days,’ or, ‘We don’t want you to contact our students until Dec. 1 of the 1L year,’ they can still say those things. We’re just saying, ‘Not everyone has to do the same thing.’”

It remains to be seen what law school career services offices think of the change. Several careers services deans contacted immediately after the NALP announcement declined to comment, saying they hadn’t had time to digest what the new guidelines will mean for their schools.

But NALP’s board of directors, composed of representatives from both law schools and law firms, felt strongly that a major change was overdue, Leipold said. NALP has had a set of recruiting guidelines in place since 1978 and has frequently modified them over the years.

“The market is changing in every way so quickly that we need a set of standards that will work over a much longer period of time, that will work for a broader group of institutions, that provides real ethical guidance for all the players,” Leipold said.

Among the new guidelines:

  • Employers should be mindful of students’ schedules, particularly during their first semester of law school.
  • Firms should establish “reasonable response deadlines and giving candidates a reasonable period of time to consider offers of employment.”
  • They should avoid “undue pressure” on candidates to accept or decline employment offers.

Under the new guidelines, so called “exploding offers”—in which firms give students less than 28 days to accept—are allowed. However, individual schools may prohibit the practice, Leipold said.

Leipold said he doesn’t anticipate a Wild West atmosphere this on-campus recruiting cycle, which officially gets underway in August. Rather, he expects different segments of firms and law schools to settle into a few sets of common practices, particularly because law firms are loathe to stray from their competitors.

“I don’t think it will be 15 sets of rules,” he said. “I think the market will quickly settle again. Groups of school will coalesce around common regimes. But there might be two or three regimes. Every school is not going to have something different. The common practices might be very similar to the practices we’ve always had in place.”

NALP’s former set of recruiting guidelines was already showing signs of erosion. Large firms were increasingly hiring summer associates in June and July after their 1L year—several months before official on-campus recruiting started. And firm offices that hire small summer associate classes were increasingly frustrated with the 28-day offer holding period, which made it very difficult to fill out their class, Leipold said.

The NALP board also worried that the previous rules coddled law students and didn’t help them develop the professional skills needed to navigate a competitive hiring market, Leipold added.

“Never again in their lives will they have an offer that stays open for 28 days, or has all these guarantees,” he said. “None of their peers who went to businesses school have that sort of protected job market. It’s an important set of skills to look for a job, receive job offers, and communicate with employers.”