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Deferred and Demoted

Vivia Chen

June 18, 2010

Lotteryart Remember Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery," in which a seemingly typical small American town holds an annual lottery where one of its residents is picked as the "winner"? As you might recall, the prize was death by stoning.

No law firm is that sinister, I know. But for some reason that story popped into my head when I read in Above The Law that McDermott Will & Emery recently picked three of its deferred associates from the class of 2009 to be discovery lawyers.The firm told ATL that it made 54 offers: 37 started and 17 were deferred--and three had their offers rescinded.

And now for the really confusing part: "But McDermott didn’t rescind the three offers outright," reports ATL. "Instead, according to MWE, the three people have been offered discovery attorney positions. The position is nonpartnership-track, but the salary is $77,500 per year, plus benefits and a bonus."

If I have this right, that means McDermott rescinded the regular offer--and I'd bet there's some legal reason for this maneuver--then turned around and gave the three the offer for the dead- end, lower-paying job.

What, I wondered, did the three associates do to warrant this second-class status? Were they borderline hires from the get-go? Did they go to lesser law schools? Did they do something embarrassing during their year of deferment, like participating in a dumb reality show? Or did they pick short straws, like the hapless victim in Jackson's story?

Though the firm spoke with ATL, it's had a change of heart about speaking with the press; it declined my request for comment.

ATL says McDermott Will partners have been trying to sell these positions: "Sources tell us that partners have been making calls to the rescinded summers, pushing the great (nonpartner-track) opportunities available in McDermott’s discovery center."

To be fair, McDermott Will has been perfectly open that it has two classes of associates. In 2007 it created a staff attorney track, according to The Recorder:

The idea is that the new hires--the firm is looking into starting with a pilot group of 15--will be lawyers 'with good pedigrees' who have practiced for a few years but don't want to deal with big-firm hours, said McDermott Will partner Robert Mallory said. Instead, they'll put in more like 30 to 40 hours and be paid something like 25 percent less, though an exact pay range hasn't been decided.

At that time, Mallory explained that economics was behind the decision: "In a market where high compensation for lateral partners, lateral associates, and associates [is] creating pressures, we're trying to bring the best-quality service at the lowest price to our clients."

There's nothing wrong with having a lower caste of lawyers, except that's not what the three deferred associates signed up for at the start of this long courtship. So did the firm pull a bait-and-switch on them?

Perhaps the decision isn't as arbitrary as it seems. Let's hope that my "Lottery" analogy is totally wacky.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at: [email protected]


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Why do you assume the would be associates did something wrong?

For starters, the firm did consider them good enough for associate positions when it made them summer and then permanent offers. Secondly, I keep hearing rumors about McDermott layoffs. However, from the rumors it sounds like they're laying people off in small groups over an extended period of time. Often companies do this to avoid media attention to their layoffs. Perhaps this will be one of many negative decisions McDermott makes regarding its incoming associates.

The better question is, what is McDermott doing wrong that it 1) has enough financial problems that it has to reneg on its would be associates after having them wait a year to start, and 2) has such a lack of regard for its employees that it thinks a move like this is okay?

Honestly, I think the answers to these questions will yield a much better answer to your question.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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