The Legal Beat
This Is Where The Recruiting Power Lies
Posted on Thursday September 19, 2019
As a child of the 1980s and 90s, it should come as no real surprise that in my youth, I was a fan of professional wrestling. In fact, the first substantive piece (i.e., not a comment on a Prodigy-era message board) I had published on the internet was a wrestling column — thankfully, it was written under a pseudonym and the website is seemingly no longer active, which prevents me from having to buy the site and then take all the hard drives to an open field and literally light them on fire. In a sentence that will probably make no sense to anyone under the age of 30, I can remember being driven down to the local Blockbuster video store so I could pick out a WWF (yes, before they lost their litigation battle with the World Wildlife Fund) VHS tape that I would watch on a loop until it was time to return it and pick out another.
While probably the most recognizable figure in the industry during this period, I was never a fan of Hulk Hogan. At the time, my dislike stemmed mainly from thinking his workrate was subpar, at best — teenage me would have preferred a Ric Flair or Bret Hart match any day of the week; as an adult, I harbor a good amount of resentment for his role in the destruction of the beloved Gawker. But while not a personal favorite, there is one Hogan promo that sticks out in my mind to this day.
I have been thinking about “where the power lies” in recent days as the “Fall” Recruiting Cycle has wound down. This year’s iteration was the first following the abandonment of the NALP Guidelines in an action that increasingly strikes me as the most stunning act of abdication since Edward VIII. In this post-Guidelines world, many are wondering which entity, law firms or law schools, is going to hold greater sway in setting the new rules for legal recruiting. It seems axiomatic for many that the power will be held by the firms, if for no other reason than they have the jobs. While I guarantee this is not a tryout for The Ringer, my hot take is I think that reasoning is backward. It is law schools — especially the most elite institutions — that can mold the future of legal recruiting if they want to.
So what makes me hold this contrary view? First and foremost, a simple matter of math. Per the American Bar Association, there were 3,703 graduating J.D. students in the Class of 2018 at the top 10 law schools as most recently ranked by U.S. News, and in fact, the number of schools is actually 12 given the three-way tie for 10th place in the rankings. When you look at the infamous T14, the number of graduating students grows to 4,549, mainly because Georgetown Law is roughly the size of a G7 nation. Expanding the list to the U.S. News top 20 gives us 5,933 students. In comparison, over the last decade, Chambers Associate has tracked the number of incoming associates at a collection of 76 law firms. For 2019, that figure was 4,070, a figure that does not include a number of Am Law 25 firms that Chambers does not track including: Baker McKenzie (31 post-grad offers made in Summer 2018), Norton Rose (61 offers in 2018), Quinn Emanuel (20 offers in 2018), and Paul Hastings (75 offers in 2018). Including those firms gives us 4,257 first-year associate slots and adding the rest of the Am Law 50 firms not on the Chambers list takes the associate figure to 4,775.
So while not an apples to apples comparison (Class of 2018 vs. placements in the Fall of 2019), the evidence shows that T14 graduates are outpaced by the needs of the country’s elite law firms and these Biglaw slots constitute more than 80 percent of the top-20 graduating class. This disparity between Biglaw demand and top school supply only grows when one realizes that not every top-20 law school graduate wants to go into Biglaw. When you consider students who wish to go into private practice in smaller markets, to say nothing of those who want to go into public interest, chasm develops. In the world of supply and demand, it’s hard to say that the consumer (i.e., law firms) have the dominant hand when their demand outstrips the supply of top-20 law students.
While this might sound merely theoretical, the early evidence indicates that it is, indeed, law schools, that are taking charge in this post-Guidelines world. NALP has created a portal for both law schools and firms to provide the recruiting guidelines for their own institution, help in a world where national law schools and firms have to keep track of possibly dozens upon dozens of different guidelines, each with varying provisions. Currently, 25 law schools, including eight of the top-20 (Yale, Harvard, Chicago, UVA, Northwestern, Berkeley, UCLA, and USC) have posted their guidelines to the portal, while other schools have made theirs available on their website, see, e.g., Columbia. On the other hand, a grand total of one law firm has posted its guidelines to the portal. Now, does this mean that firms have completely ceded the post-Guidelines world to schools? No, nor does the fact that law school guidelines exist mean that they are necessarily being adhered to by law firms in legal hiring — though anecdotally, I have been contacted by a number of firms during the “Fall” cycle asking about Vanderbilt’s policy and subsequently adhering to its provisions. But what this does show is which entity has started to step up and fill the Guidelines void.
Many of you might be reading this and think, who cares? Why does it matter where the power lies in the recruiting world? Well, as consternation regarding a “Fall” Recruiting Cycle that starts earlier and earlier in July grows louder after every recruiting cycle, it is important to recognize who could do something to counteract this constant push forward on the calendar, and correct other aspects of legal recruiting that are working against the interest of law students, and the answer is top law schools.
In talking with Vanderbilt students, one of the most frequent metaphors I employ is to compare junior Biglaw associates as grist for the law firm. But it turns out that the mill cannot make flour without grist, thus, whoever controls the grist holds the future of the mill in their hands. If some want to step up and protect law students via recruiting guidelines, now is the time.
 Yes, I know that the Department of Justice similarly targeted the National Association for College Admission Counseling with threats of antitrust litigation based on alleged anti-competitive provisions in their ethics code — provisions that were designed to, and seemingly did, protect students and serve their best interests. I am still unconvinced. While the furthest thing from an antitrust scholar, even if the antitrust case against the NALP Guidelines was airtight, I am reminded of the old poker chestnut, “play the man, not the cards.” I like my odds in any litigation if institutions such as Harvard and Latham & Watkins are aligned with, rather than opposing, me.
 Covington, McDermott, Morrison & Foerster, Dechert, Arnold & Porter, Bryan Cave, Wilson Sonsini, Wachtell, Foley & Lardner, and McGuireWoods.
Nicholas Alexiou is the Director of LL.M. and Alumni Advising as well as the Associate Director of Career Services at Vanderbilt University Law School. He will, hopefully, respond to your emails at [email protected].