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Checking in on Deferred Law Firm Associates in Public Service Placements

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

  • By: Steven Grumm
  • Organization: NALP
  • Source: New York

In response to the economic downturn, many large law firms deferred the start dates of incoming associates who graduated from law school with the Class of 2009. Many of the deferring firms encouraged and offered incentives (in the form of living stipends) to their deferred associates to take placements with public interest organizations during their deferral periods.

In early 2009, a conversation began among stakeholders in the public interest community, assessing the viability of housing, training, and supervising deferred associates. These organizations’ resources have been strained during the recession, raising questions about whether hosting deferred associates in short-term placements would be more burdensome than beneficial. A related concern involved the effect on public interest staff morale, as organizations that were experiencing layoffs and salary freezes would be bringing on newly minted lawyers with firm-provided living stipends of up to $80,000 — double what a first-year legal services attorney makes. Nonetheless, driven by the rising caseloads and client demand, many concluded that there could be an enormous benefit to hosting associates, who would bring enthusiasm, legal training, and desire to contribute to their placements.

As deferred associates entered the public service arena this fall, questions remained about how effective these unique collaborations would prove, and also about whether this phenomenon would have a displacement effect on graduating law students who are on public interest career paths.

Placement Periods Have Begun, and Initial Reports are Positive

Even in the absence of an official headcount, it is clear that deferred associates have fanned out across the nation and beyond—some taking placements in the locales where their law firms are, some returning to hometowns, and some even going abroad as they’ve begun their public service placements. Not surprisingly, though, these new public interest advocates seem to be concentrated in the major U.S. legal markets. The New York Law Journal reported last month that up to 140 deferred associates are placed with local nonprofit and government law offices in New York City. Host organizations include the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office (which has taken on 35 deferred associates) and Legal Services NYC.

In Washington, DC, at least 12 deferred associates are at work in the civil legal services community, while the District’s Public Defender Service is hosting seven. Jennifer Thomas, PDS’s Director of Legal Recruiting, notes, “This has been a successful experiment thus far, and we are quite pleased with the associates’ abilities to integrate so easily into our office culture and immediately contribute to the PDS mission.” Direct services providers are not the only nonprofits in Washington to increase staff capacity by taking on a deferred associate. “The National Association of Attorneys General is fortunate to have a deferred associate … on our staff for one year,” reports James McPherson, the organization’s Executive Director. “In addition to reaping the benefits of her superlative legal skills, we are exposing her to the world of public service and the issues faced by our state attorneys general.”

In Chicago, there are over three dozen new advocates in the civil legal services community, including deferred associates, those who are participating in voluntary law firm sabbatical programs, and some who have been laid off by firms. There are deferred associates placed with the city government as well. Kelly Tautges, Director of Pro Bono with the Chicago Bar Foundation, characterizes progress in Chicago as being “very positive” and comments: “We are getting great feedback from both the legal aid organizations and the deferred associates.” Indeed, the deferred associates, according to Tautges, “are gaining a lot of perspective about public interest work that will impact their careers…whether through an increased commitment to pro bono when they return to private practice or even a change in career paths.”

The Bay Area is home to several deferred associates as well. The Volunteer Legal Services Program, a pro bono clearinghouse in San Francisco, has succeeded in maximizing the skills of its deferred associates, according to Executive Director Tiela Chalmers: “We’ve been entirely thrilled with our Law Firm Fellows. They’ve hit the ground running, enabling us to continue or even in some cases expand services to clients in the midst of cutbacks and furloughs. We would certainly have faced significant cuts in services without them, and they’ve really been a pleasure to have around.”

It is noteworthy also that judges and courthouses, feeling the strains of budgetary belt-tightening in government, have sought out deferred associates. NALP’s PSLawNet website, which is serving as an online clearinghouse for public interest and government offices to link up with deferred associates hunting for opportunities, has featured several postings for deferred associates in state judiciaries, with the Kansas Supreme Court, as well as with courts in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Missouri, and Guam. (Interestingly, at least one jurisdiction backed away from a plan to host deferred associates in courthouses. The Boston Globe reported in September that officials with the Massachusetts state judiciary abandoned a plan to take deferred associates on as law clerks, at least partially because of apparent ethics concerns.)

A Training Infrastructure in the Civil Legal Services Community

The successful integration of deferred associates into civil legal services organizations around the country is attributable in part to collaborative efforts to welcome, train, and educate the associates at the outset of their placements. The New York City Bar Association and the City Bar Justice Center launched a “Deferred Associate Law Extern Support Project” in the late summer to “provide a series of training sessions that will help the law firm externs get up to speed on the hard and soft skills needed to succeed at their externships” and “to bring the externs together with their peers to discuss their experiences in a supportive environment.”

The group has held a series of gatherings for deferred associates throughout the fall. Similar programs and events have been developed in California and elsewhere. Also, on the national level, ProBono.Net is hosting a central repository of information to assist associates in acclimating to their new work settings and maximizing their contributions to their host organizations: http:// www.probono.net/fellows. These offerings include a free webinar, entitled Public Interest Perspectives: An Introductory Training for Private Attorneys in Public Interest Placement, which was produced by NALP and the Association of Pro Bono Counsel and webcast live in early September.

Questions and Challenges Remain

While the phenomenon of deferred associates taking public service placements appears to be paying dividends in terms of public interest and government law offices maintaining or expanding service capacity in trying economic times, some challenges and uncertainties will persist.

First, it will be important to continue the process of cultural acclimatization as deferred associates adjust, even if only temporarily, to vastly different office settings and cultures than they would experience in their law firms. This is not just about a lack of espresso machines and other trappings of “Biglaw” life. Public interest and public sector offices around the country are implementing staff layoffs, furloughs, and hiring or salary freezes. Morale can be low among remaining staffers, who bear the brunt of increased caseloads while saying goodbye to colleagues. They may look askance at a deferred associate, freshly out of law school, who arrives with a $75,000 stipend — a sum on par with a director-level salary at some public interest organizations — for a short-term stint in advance of their law firm start date.

But so far, so good. Many of the associates now taking public interest placements have past experience in nonprofit and government work settings, enabling them to blend in and hit the ground running with work assignments. Even those for whom public service work is new bring noble intentions and strong legal training to the table. And, perhaps most importantly, their pitching in lightens the loads which have been so heavily weighing on their new colleagues.

Noteworthy also is that deferred associates’ experiences in public interest placements may leave an impression on them long after they have returned to law firm settings. They may come to respect the senses of camaraderie and teamwork that prevail in public interest settings. Tautges, of the Chicago Bar Foundation, envisions a potential “bridging of the gap between the private and public interest bars as associates who partake in public interest placements become the next generation of pro bono advocates, public interest board members, and fundraisers.”

A second, important concern is being voiced by some law school public interest advisors and law students who are on public service career paths. They wonder if the placements of deferred associates will have a displacement effect on the many students who vie for low-paying positions because of their commitment to public service careers. Even in good times, competition for public service positions — particularly in the nonprofit arena—is fierce because they are few in number.

Now, deferred associates who are self-funded with living stipends are taking up the desk space and taking on the responsibilities that public-service minded law students have invested thousands of tuition dollars in hopes of inheriting. Barbara Moulton, the Assistant Dean for Public Interest and Community Service at the Georgetown University Law Center, understands the dilemma: “I’m sympathetic to public interest organizations taking deferred associates because most are not in the financial position to hire entry-level public interest lawyers, but overall I think there probably is some displacement—and there certainly are emotional costs to students and recent alums who have only followed a public interest path.”

Moulton touches upon an important point that may give some comfort to law students feeling crowded out of the public service job market by those from the law firm world: Even removing deferred associates from the picture, the economic downturn has exacted such a financial toll on nonprofit and government law offices that many would be unable to take on new staff anyway. For instance, in Philadelphia the District Attorney’s revocation of 12 offers to Class of 2009 law grads was widely reported. On the other side of the courtroom, the Defender Association of Philadelphia implemented a hiring freeze in 2009 that may continue into 2010. Likewise, legal services organizations are in the throes of economic crises and funding has been cut drastically.

Another reason for these students to take comfort: Public interest lawyers are former public interest law students, and they well know how valuable a commitment to a public service career is when they hire junior attorneys. “A passionate commitment to public service is a chief criterion in our hiring process,” notes Thomas of the Public Defender Service, “and that will remain long after the recession has gone.”


 

This piece offers only a first glimpse of how this phenomenon has begun unfolding. I join law school public interest advisors in their concern about how more potential law firm deferrals among the Class of 2010 could affect the law students who (like me a few years ago) went to school with a single-minded focus to become a public interest advocate. But as a former civil legal services advocate, I amalso relieved to see that deferred associates have already begun making contributions that will greatly assist struggling nonprofit and government offices to carry out their missions. My friend Kelly Carmody, a public interest lawyer and consultant in the legal services community, notes that “all other things aside, especially in these hard times it must be all about the clients.”

 

Steven L. Grumm is the NALP Director of Public Service Initiatives.

Reprinted from NALP Bulletin, December 2009. ©2009 National Association for Law Placement, Inc.® All rights reserved. This article may be printed for personal use only. Any reproduction, retransmission or republication of all or part of this material is expressly prohibited unless NALP or the copyright owner has granted prior written consent. For reprint permission contact the NALP office at (202) 835-1001 or www.nalp.org.
 

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