Three months before graduating law school, Jennifer Brooks had already lined up her first associate’s job and was planning out her life. Recently married, she was working as a transactional paralegal at a busy commercial real estate firm in West Hartford, Conn., and attending law school at night.

The deal was Brooks would join the firm after she passed the bar exam later that year, and she single-handedly negotiated her contract, including an agreement for the firm to pick up the tabs for exam prep courses and bar exam fees.