In August 2008, Nathan Richardson committed to following in the footsteps of so many young lawyers before him: a summer position with a big law firm, followed by a job offer before he ever cracked open a third-year textbook. And then everything changed.

With offers of employment made in August 2008 and the full force of the recession hitting in October, many big law firms — like Latham & Watkins, where Mr. Richardson was a summer associate — had to re-evaluate the job offers made to members of the class of 2009. As a way to keep their costs down while holding on to promising associates, many offered the graduates the chance to take up to a year off before starting as associates, complete with a stipend of $60,000 to $75,000. They could travel, do research, or choose — as many did — to work in the public sector.

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