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What is BigLaw, and why is it in danger?

        Money | Careers

Times Are Tough
Most law students dream of getting a job in BigLaw, but the recession has whittled away most of the perks associated with these positions.
Most law students dream of getting a job in BigLaw, but the recession has whittled away most of the perks associated with these positions.
Tim Klein/Getty Images

It's never been easy to get a BigLaw job. If you don't graduate toward the top of your class in one of the nation's 15 or 20 most prestigious law schools, you probably don't have a chance. As people with visions of BigLaw jobs competed for spots at those top law schools, tuition costs soared, reaching nearly $50,000 a year for some. As tuition costs went up, even students at the top schools who might have been more interested in public-sector jobs considered BigLaw so that they could pay off their student loans. Competition got even stiffer.

When the recession caused problems for many BigLaw firms, hiring of new associates slowed. Since 2008, BigLaw firms have shed an estimated 15,000 jobs [source: Segal]. These firms have found they can outsource some of the work that associates once did to contract workers in the U.S. and abroad.

Making matters worse, enrollment at law schools is up even as demand for new lawyers is down, partly because college graduates who don't have jobs think it's a good time to go back to school. In 2009, 43,000 new lawyers graduated, up 11 percent from the late 1990s [source: Segal].

Besides prestige, one of the big advantages of being at one of the nation's top law schools was recruiting. BigLaw would send representatives to campuses to woo top students. Some BigLaw firms staged summer "boot camps" to give law students a taste of their firm, and to put an early bid in for the best students. Much of this recruiting has been trimmed in light of the recession.

Firms simply didn't have the resources to hire all of those new recruits: A recent survey by the National Law Journal found that the nation's top law schools sent 10 percent fewer graduates to BigLaw firms in 2010 as compared to 2009 [source: Jones]. And in 2009, there were half as many openings for associates at BigLaw firms as the year before [source: Shih]. Students who received offers would increasingly have their offers deferred or even rescinded. Even worse, some younger associates wound up getting laid off for financial reasons.

Leaders in legal organizations and at law schools and firms have begun to talk about changing recruitment. There are still some good associate jobs at BigLaw firms, but they tend to be for lawyers who can immediately be productive in specialized areas rather than just those who had good grades at top schools. And the practice of recruiting associates a year or two before they graduate causes problems when there are sudden changes in the economy and fewer lawyers are needed.

Is a BigLaw job really a dream job? You might be surprised. Read on.