The Difficult Road to Becoming a Big Law Associate

Corporate Boardroom

One question that I often hear from current and prospective law students relates to obtaining a Big Law position.  It certainly isn't easy and it depends on a wide range of factors, including your grades, the prestige of your law school, and networking.  Nevertheless, there are several factors out of your control that make it difficult to enter Big Law.  Two of the most obvious factors are (1) steady numbers of law students that are attracted to Big Law associate positions and (2) smaller Big Law associate classes since the Great Recession.

Law Students Are Drawn To Big Law

Big Law associate positions are attractive for a number of reasons, most notably the high compensation and prestige.  Salaries for first-year Big Law associates have always been high, but in June 2016, many Big Law firms increased their first-year associate salaries to $180,000.  And this is just the base salary for most first-year associates: discretionary bonuses can increase yearly compensation to more than $200,000.  Law students find it difficult to ignore these numbers, especially because many have outstanding law school debt.  While other factors like cost of living and taxes will ultimately affect their net income, it’s clear that becoming a Big Law associate is one of the best ways to quickly pay off law school loans.

Compensation is the most obvious factor, but the other attractive factor is Big Law’s prestige.  While Big Law associate positions aren’t as prestigious as, say, a Supreme Court clerkship, they are still widely respected within the legal field.  Along with compensation, this is why associates are willing to put up with long hours and a difficult work environment: they know that having Big Law on their resume will open up doors in the future.  Whether they wish to work as in-house counsel at a corporation, as an assistant U.S. attorney, or wish to exit the legal field entirely, their experience in Big Law will help them transition to other opportunities.

Both of these factors lead to increased competition for summer associate positions (which typically lead to full-time associate positions).  Law students recognize that they will need to pay off their loans and that Big Law provides the best way to pay them off as quickly as possible.  Even though the hours may be difficult and the work environment may not be cuddly, they’re willing to grin and bear it in order to eliminate their debt.  And even though they may not entirely enjoy working in Big Law, they recognize that Big Law will provide a good foundation for other opportunities in the future.  Law schools themselves make it easy to interview for Big Law positions through on-campus recruiting, so there really is no incentive not to seek out some initial interviews with Big Law firms.  You never know what could happen.

Trends in Big Law Hiring

But beyond this, it’s difficult to obtain a Big Law position since Big Law firms have been much more conservative in bringing on summer associates and first-year associates.  Before the Great Recession, there were countless stories of Big Law firms bringing on large summer associate classes.  Those summer associates did virtually no work, instead spending their time networking with attorneys and attending fun summer events.  Still, nearly all of those summer associates received offers to become first-year associates.  This reality doesn’t exist anymore. Class sizes have decreased since the Recession, and they haven’t risen to the same level.  Summer associates have to take on more work and there is no guarantee that they’ll be offered first-year associate positions.  Ultimately, summer associate recruitment has been “flat.”

So it’s a simple supply and demand issue.  The demand for Big Law positions has remained steady while the supply of summer associate and first-year associate positions hasn’t entirely bounced back since the Great Recession.  The recent associate raises may cause Big Law firms to be even more conservative, and there’s always the possibility of another recession on the horizon.  While it’s nearly impossible to predict macro trends, there’s a convincing argument that it will continue to be difficult to enter Big Law.

Having said this, it’s not impossible to obtain a Big Law position.  Receiving solid 1L grades and confidently navigating on-campus and callback interviews can increase your chances of obtaining a Big Law position.  It also doesn’t hurt to attend networking events hosted by Big Law firms.