The XX Factor

When $80,000 in the Hand Isn’t Worth a Career in the Bush

Last fall, law firm graduates with offers to start work at high-profile firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore (where I worked after my own law school graduation) were offered the option of accepting $80,000, with benefits, to defer their start date at the firm by a year. Why? The most obvious reason is that law firms make their offers in the fall of the preceding year, which means that these students were made offers in the fall of 2008, well before the full impact of the recession was felt. In casual conversation, Cravath people will tell you that they simply had-again, thanks to the recession-far more acceptances than they’d expected. A number of other firms found themselves in the same position, and made similar offers, all meant to prevent the arrival of far too many young associates at a moment when there was less work to be done than anyone had anticipated. At first blush, how tempting does that sound? $80,000 for, as Elizabeth Wurtzel put it in the WSJ , ” bubkes .”

Except that it’s not bubkes. For a student who expects to make a career in the law, that year off could easily have an eventual cost far greater than $80,000. The only student that $80,000 offer makes sense for is one who (like Wurtzel, who remains primarily a writer and has a part-time job in the law) doesn’t really want the job-and that’s exactly why it’s not safe to take it, and why anyone looking at a career opportunity that seems too good to be true should look twice.

It’s very difficult to succeed in a top law firm for many reasons. Statistically, it seems to be even more difficult for women, as, even in recent years when more women partners might have been expected since classes with increasingly large numbers of women have competed for the title, the percentage of female partners hovers at around 19 percent . In a law firm culture where the ability to withstand long hours is paramount, where Saturday night phone calls are run-of-the-mill and the best first-year associates are on a first-name basis with the all-night cleaning crew, taking an optional year off could brand you permanently as a dilettante, uncommited, or worse. I’m 100 percent sure that those students were assured that this would have no effect on their future career with the firm, and I’m also 100 percent sure that, in a world in which assigning, work level, and partnership decisions are made behind closed doors, that assurance-while probably well-intentioned-won’t hold true.

Even assuming the very best, taking a year off from starting a career has other costs. Women planning to combine family life with a law career find that it takes time to earn enough credibility at any job to get the consideration you need to combine a hard-core work environment with parenting a baby or small child, whether it’s part-time work, extra time off, or just a little room to let a few things slide. Taking a year off puts you one year further away from the moment in your working life when those things become possible and will probably increase the odds that even a woman who’d planned to continue working may find that it doesn’t feel worth it. And for any student, taking that year off may simply put you behind the curve. As the economy improves, they’ll be a year behind their peers in their ability to take advantage of it, and if another recession hits, they’ll have a year’s less seniority to rely on when facing layoffs or a job search.

Not many of us are in the position of these law school graduates, but this is a moment when voluntary plans for extra vacation time, sabbaticals, extended maternity leaves, and such abound, and all of those things have their temptations and their dangers. When Wurtzel suggests taking a year for “sleeping and loafing around Park Slope,” she’s offering possibly the worst recession career advice ever. The smartest students won’t (and apparently didn’t) take it. Instead, driven students who want to make a career with a firm will determinedly start their careers, while those confident in other plans (or those, like next year’s class of future Cravath attorneys, with a mandatory deferral) will take their year and their salary and put it into public service , earning more experience that will eventually benefit the employer who’s paying for it, while nonprofits and government agencies short of both staff and money gain much-needed help. Neither of those options is the obvious choice, and that’s why the example of the “lucky” law student has a message for anybody mapping out a long career through a really tough moment. Do look a gift horse in the mouth. Count its teeth. Think twice, and then again, about what you’re really being given, and what you really want.