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Deferred Associates Scorecard: So How Was That Pro Bono Gig?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

By Nate Raymond | New York Law Journal

Nearly three-quarters of deferred associates in New York who placed with public interest groups developed a stronger interest in pro bono work because of the experience, according to a report released last week by the New York City Bar.

But the bar group also found that while the deferred attorneys were generally satisfied with the training they received, they expressed a low satisfaction level with their integration into public interest groups, and a frustration with the lack of communication from their law firms about their start dates.

Lynn Kelly, executive director of the city bar, said she was pleased the deferred associates had been having a "rewarding and fruitful experience" at the public interest groups. But she said she was "troubled" by findings that suggested a culture gap had developed between the law firm-bound lawyers and the ones already working at the public interest groups.

"There was an early identification of the issue of how do you take people who've never really worked in a public interest environment and plop them down in the middle of a public interest organization," Kelly said.

The report lists a series of best practices, ranging from training the deferred associates early in their placement to making it an industry standard to provide a stipend and health insurance to future deferred associates.

Rene Kathawala, pro bono counsel at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, said the report would be helpful in improving the current deferral programs but also in any future efforts. Kathawala is a member of Friends of Pro Bono, an ad-hoc group of 30 pro bono lawyers and legal services who support a permanent fellowship program.

"I think underlying this report is a hope that in some form or fashion there would be a continuation of a larger scope fellowship program that included 12-month externships and committing first-year associates to public interest positions," said Kathawala, who was not involved in drafting the report.

An estimated 140 deferred associates from firms such as White & Case; Ropes & Gray; and Weil, Gotshal & Manges have been working since the fall for public interest groups, the judiciary and governmental agencies in New York City, according to the report. Nearly all received a stipend from their firms while working for groups ranging from the Legal Aid Society to the Kings County District Attorney's Office.

The city bar has been hosting training sessions for the young lawyers and helping them find public interest placements.

In December, the city bar conducted phone interviews with eight public interest groups and 15 deferred associates. In January it launched an online survey, to which 47 deferred associates responded.

Of those who responded, 89 percent said the skills they developed would help them in their career, while 73 percent said their interest in pro bono had increased. Nearly 92 percent said they would recommend their placement to deferred associates in the future.

The city bar said it heard few complaints from public interest groups regarding the deferred associates that worked for them. Asked about the best experience during their deferrals, some of the law firm-bound lawyers named winning their first trial, legislative advocacy and working with clients.

Asked about their satisfaction with aspects of their programs, the associates gave high marks to office space, training and clients. They gave lower ratings when asked about their integration into the public interest office and the legal work itself. The report speculates that the low ranking on legal matters may reflect either a delay in getting up to speed or a lack of interest in an area of law the associate did not expect to focus on post-graduation.

The young lawyers also gave a low ranking when asked about their satisfaction with the public interest lawyers they were working with. The city bar report suggests that reaction may reflect a culture gap.

Yanfei Shen, a 27-year-old deferred associate from Brown Rudnick working at South Brooklyn Legal Services, said she was "surprised" to hear about that level of dissatisfaction, adding she liked the people she was working with. But there were cultural differences, she said. At her organization, compassion was the driving force, unlike at a law firm.

"I'm sure there are compassionate people there as well, but their primary motivations are different," Shen said.

While associates said they were satisfied with their training, the report said that for public interest groups, the costs associated with training and supervision "is a major issue."

The city bar said its programs, funded by the New York Community Trust, helped reduce initial training costs, but public interest organizations remain concerned for future deferral placements.

"It was a costly program for the public interest organizations in terms of providing supervision," Kelly said. "Although it's a terrific program in the sense that you get a free lawyer for the organizations, the costs involved in the supervision are real costs."

Deferred associates also were frustrated with the lack of communication from their firms, especially over start dates. And deferred associates "have overwhelmingly complained" about a lack of clarity when firms decide to extend or end the deferrals, the report said.

In a small number of cases, decisions by firms to call back their deferred associates early caused problems for the agencies, as the firms typically did not have direct contact with the public interest groups.

Kathawala said while there were "obviously pitfalls and lessons" to be learned, overall the experience of placing deferred associates in public interest work has been positive.

The young lawyers "had excellent professional development opportunities," he said. "They're doing things they wouldn't probably be doing at a law firm in their first year of practice."



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