Why decline $80,000 for doing nothing?

By Felix Salmon
December 16, 2009
Elizabeth Wurtzel piece has been gnawing at me all day:

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This Elizabeth Wurtzel piece has been gnawing at me all day:

The class of associates that just joined Cravath was asked to defer their arrival for a year in exchange for a sweet deal: They would receive $80,000 to not work, plus they would get benefits and student-loan payments. This offer was optional…

I’ve been told that none of the graduates of Yale Law School who were headed for Cravath accepted their offer of $80,000 to surf and sunbathe, or go forth and save the world. Since no one at either institution is willing to discuss this—and I don’t blame them, because I would be embarrassed too—I don’t know this for certain. But here’s what I’m sure of: Not everybody took Cravath up on this peachy keen opportunity to do anything for a year with pay and benefits. And that by itself is disturbing enough.

What on earth would possess a law student fresh out of Yale Law to decline this offer?

Is it that these students simply can’t think of anything worthwhile to do with one year, $80,000, and the world as their oyster? I know that lawyers can sometimes suffer a failure of imagination, but that’s crazy.

Is it that they feel they can’t afford to live on a mere $80k? Unlikely: they’re fresh out of university, after all, and Cravath is paying their student-loan payments.

Is it that they desperately aspire to the drudgery and 100-hour weeks of a first-year biglaw associate? Surely not.

Is it that they fear their job won’t be waiting for them on their return? If they mistrust Cravath that much, they shouldn’t take the job in the first place.

The only conceivable reason I can think of to decline the offer is if you have school-age kids to support, and that seems improbable for all but a tiny minority of first-year biglaw associates.

I suspect that there’s something very American going on here — something to do with taking pride in hard work — but as an Englishman, I have to say it eludes me. Can somebody fill me in?

Update: There are some great responses in the comments, especially from Future_Lawyer.

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