Believe it: The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has hit law firms hard. Historically, the legal sector has weathered recessions better than many other sectors have, buoyed by the attendant surges in litigation and bankruptcy work. That’s what’s happened, for instance, amid the wave of corporate scandals — the so-called Enron era — that followed the bursting of the high-tech bubble. Not this time. Big firms are hurting, their profit margins squeezed by both sagging demand and record-high expenses. The result: the now familiar litany of mass layoffs, salary freezes and cuts, deferred start dates for first-year associates, and canceled or downsized summer programs.

Given all that, the $160,000 question now is, what happens when the economy recovers? Will things go back to how they were?

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