McClure Naismith, which has offices across the UK, Europe, America and the Far East, told four trainees heading for its Glasgow head office only two could join the company. Faced with cutting costs during the recession, it will force the other two to defer employment for a year, without compensation.
The action has been criticised by members of the legal community, who accused McClure Naismith of destroying employee morale and damaging the company's reputation.
Legal firms usually select trainees years in advance while they are at university. Due to staffing cuts many multinational firms, including Clifford Chance, Norton Rose and Lovells, this year reduced their trainee number by asking them to defer employment for a year. Most deferment schemes are optional and trainees receive a sweetener of up to 15,000.
But McClure Naismith picked people's names out of a hat to decide who would not be taken on, and unlucky candidates were offered no money until September 2010. A spokesman said: "The trainees were fully involved and all of them thanked the firm for the fair and open process.
"Both deferred trainees will start with the firm next year, with one employed in another capacity and the other planning to take a gap year."
Matthew Rhodes, a director at legal community website www.rollonfriday.com, described it as "like some cruel version of Pop Idol without all the singing".