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Palo Alto, Calif.-based Fenwick & West has told six of the 11 first-year associates scheduled to start in January in the firm’s corporate group that they won’t be needed. The slow pace of work in the corporate group prompted the firm to rescind the offers, said John McNelis, a Fenwick managing partner. Instead of a job, Fenwick gave the lawyers a severance package of four months’ salary and access to a job counselor. The firm also promised them first dibs on any slots in next year’s class that open up. “This was a difficult decision,” McNelis said. “We like these people. They summered with us, and we offered them a position.” The six would-be associates represent 20 percent of Fenwick’s class of first-years. In all, Fenwick’s 2002 class numbered 30, 13 of whom have already started work, McNelis said. Three first-years in tax and 10 litigation associates started in October or earlier, he said. And in January, the firm is expecting six first-year patent associates and the remaining five corporate associates to start work, he said. Firm managers kicked around a number of ideas short of rescinding the offers, McNelis said. The options included delaying the start date another quarter or putting associates to work for a few months in litigation, which is already borrowing associates from other groups. But in the end, McNelis said firm management wasn’t optimistic about a comeback in corporate work anytime soon. “Given that we’re not convinced the economy is going to take off in the first quarter of 2003,” McNelis said, “we wanted them to take other opportunities if they were available.” Rescinding offers to first-years was once considered the kiss of death for law firm recruiting, but the downturn in the economy has made it somewhat commonplace. In October 2001, Menlo Park, Calif.’s Venture Law Group was the first firm in the Bay Area to delay the start date of its first-year class. Since then, other firms have followed suit, offering buyout or severance packages or creating pay plans for lawyers to work elsewhere until they’re called. So far this year, San Francisco-based Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and Palo Alto-based Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich have made similar attempts to slow the influx of corporate first-years in light of the still-sluggish economy by offering monthly stipends to lawyers who take other work.

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