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September 18, 2009 5:45 AM

S&C vs. Harvard and the Relevance of NALP's 45-Day Rule

Posted by Zach Lowe

Everyone we talk to seems to agree that this is the craziest, most stressful recruiting season in recent memory. More top law schools have moved what used to be fall interview dates into late August. That in turn has led to some debate over whether the entire recruiting season should be pushed back into the middle of the academic year. Law firms, concerned about the economy, are trying everything to manage the size of their 2010 summer class, from making all their job offers on a single day (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom) to extending the offers on the spot at call back interviews.

"We're seeing a little bit of everything, which is understandable in this environment," says Susan Guindi, assistant dean for career services at The University of Michigan Law School. "We've had students receive offers right on the spot at call backs, just like the old days. But there are also a lot of very fine firms that are waiting."

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the anxiety of this recruiting season better than Sullivan & Cromwell's abandoned attempt to bypass a standard, set by NALP, that firms leave offers to students open for up to 45 days. In late July, S&C called several of the nation's top law schools and informed career services personnel at those schools that the firm would not be following the 45-day guideline, according to six sources with direct knowledge of the situation. All six spoke only on the condition that they not be identified publicly. 

Instead, S&C told the career services personnel, the firm would require prospects to respond yes or no in two weeks.

Law school higher-ups had varying reactions to the move, but none reacted more strongly than Harvard, according to all six sources. Harvard quickly told S&C that, if it stuck with its plan to leave offers open for just two weeks, the firm would not be invited to recruit on campus this year. Mark Weber, assistant dean for career services at Harvard, declined to comment when we reached him this week. A Sullivan & Cromwell spokeswoman did not return messages, but a S&C source familiar with the firm's recruiting strategy says the firm believed it could make more offers under the two week rule because of the greater certainty it would provide. The source also points out that S&C was prepared to promise students that the firm would make offer decisions within two days of a second interview.

Weber also sent an e-mail to several prominent law firms reminding them of the 45-day rule, according to a copy of the e-mail obtained by The Am Law Daily. "We expect all firms participating in our [interviewing] programs to comply with these rules," the e-mail states. Other law schools, including New York University School of Law and Yale Law School, sent similar reminders. Career services officials at NYU and Yale declined to comment when reached by The Am Law Daily. 

S&C backed down quickly and promised to obey the 45-day standard, according to all six sources who spoke to us about the matter. 

But that doesn't mean the 45-day guideline is set in stone. James Leipold, executive director at NALP, says several firms (none of which he would name) have called the organization asking if they could skip the 45-day rule in some way this season. Several have asked for permission to keep offers open for 45 days or until they collect as many acceptances as they want--whichever comes first. NALP has rejected this suggestion and told firms to abide by the 45-day standard, though, as Leipold says, "there is no NALP police" to enforce it. But firms are following the standard, Leipold says. "The fact that they even call us shows how seriously they take this," he says. "They do not want to get into a situation where a Harvard or Yale says your behavior makes it so you can't recruit here." (Leipold would not comment on the flap between S&C and Harvard and would not confirm that, in fact, S&C got itself into just such a situation.)

"We tell people we'd like to know as soon as possible but we always follow the NALP guidelines," says Jorge Juantorena, the recruiting partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. "We have heard of firms not following the NALP guideline but we are not doing that."

Jan Conroy, the director of public affairs at Yale, puts it this way: "People are encouraging students to make decisions more quickly, but there's no sense of pressure or coercion in any way."

With offers and call backs scarce, law schools aren't encouraging students to use their full 45 days anyway, according to several career services officials. In his e-mail to law firms, Weber, the assistant dean for career services at Harvard, wrote the following: "Given the current legal market, however, we recognize and appreciate the uncertainty that many employers will face in managing yields for their summer programs this season. To provide employers with more certainty in managing their yields, we will strongly advise our students to respond to offers within three weeks if at all possible."

Other career services officials are sending similar messages, and the popular legal blog Above the Law has been encouraging students to accept offers quickly for weeks. "I think the students understand that it is in their interest, their classmates' interest, and the firms' interest that they move as quickly as they can," says Kevin Donovan, a former partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius who recently left the firm to become Senior Assistant Dean for Career Services at the University of Virginia Law School of Law. 

And, as we've previously reported, NALP itself has formed a commission to study the viability of the current recruiting model.

So it's possible that this recruiting season will spur an even larger reform. 

"There has been anxiety from beginning to end about this recruiting season," Leipold says.


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Interesting. Is the "don't accept more than one offer" guideline set in stone?

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