Pro Bono Digest: Associate Externship Program

Monday, March 10, 2003

  • Bill Dean
Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS) is a long-time exponent of the Associate Externship Program, pursuant to which a law firm releases three associates in the course of a year, each of whom works full-time for a four month period at a neighborhood law office of Legal Services for New York City. Through the creation of associate externships, a law firm can both supplement and enrich its traditional pro bono program.

The Associate Externship Program is a wonderfully effective pro bono program. An associate working at a legal services office acquires the necessary expertise and then can apply it to a significant number of legal cases. In addition to serving poor people on matters of utmost urgency, lawyers working in the program speak glowingly about the professional richness of the experience. The associate on loan has a chance to have primary responsibility on the firing line for a full docket of cases and to deal with clients, witnesses and opposing counsel. This can include significant courtroom time and involves the sort of direct client counseling and decision-making responsibility that can powerfully assist professional development. Associates are far more valuable when they return to the firm after their four-month externship.

Externships are by no means limited only to litigators. Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye made this point last year in the Orison Marden Lecture she delivered at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York:

A couple of years ago, a corporate associate took a four-month paid leave sponsored by his large Manhattan law firm, and joined the staff of a legal services organization. Describing his experience in a recent article, he said that on "a personal level, it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. And from a professional point of view, the months I spent...representing the city's poor and elderly did more for me as a corporate lawyer than I ever expected." Noting that corporate lawyering calls for "a thorough understanding of the issues, quick but precise thinking, and a pro-active, win-win mentality," he tells us that his assignment was "a perfect place to master these techniques, all while helping those who need it most." That place - believe it or not - was New York City Housing Court. What's more, and I quote, "the practice of landlord-tenant law is perfectly suited to corporate training because it's about six parts negotiation, three parts creativity and one part law."

LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae has participated in the Associate Externship Program since 1988. John M. Aerni served as one of his firm's first associates on loan, working full-time for four months at South Brooklyn Legal Services. Now a partner at his firm, he has written of the program:

The associates who go to South Brooklyn Legal Services return to the firm as better lawyers, more able to render quality legal services to clients - both paying and pro bono clients - confidently, independently and successfully. They develop skills in dealing with adversaries, go to court regularly to conference and try cases, draft stipulations, and argue motions. Because they handle a caseload of 30-40 matters, under the careful supervision and guidance provided by attorneys at South Brooklyn, associates also become more adept at case management. They interview clients to discover their problems, needs and goals and then work with the clients to develop strategies for relief, including self-help. The number and diversity of the clients and their problems give the LeBoeuf associates excellent opportunities for developing client relations skills while working to address the issues immediately before them.

Most importantly, LeBoeuf associates have been able to achieve success regularly at South Brooklyn and enjoy the satisfaction that accompanies it, such as helping clients keep their apartment when they were faced with eviction proceedings; obtaining essential repairs or services for clients, like running water, electricity or a toilet, when they previously had none; devising creative solutions to obtain funding for clients who are having difficulty paying their rent; and preventing potentially ruinous eviction proceedings by working with landlords to resolve disputes before proceedings commence.

John C. Gray, Jr., Project Director of South Brooklyn Legal Services, says of the externship program: "LeBoeuf's rotating associate program reflects pro bono work at its best: substantial firm and Legal Services resources focused to provide excellent representation to a high volume of clients who have major problems, not scattered on a wide variety of peripheral issues. We hope that it can provide a model for other firms."

"The program fills a training gap," says Jeffrey S. Trachtman, a partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, and chair of the firm's Pro Bono Committee. "We can provide research and writing experience at the firm as well as exposure to big case discovery - the paper side of a case - but it is unusual to provide associates with this much in-court and direct decision-making experience."

Jonathan Fried, Kramer Levin's first extern at South Brooklyn Legal Services, says of his experience:

First, by being completely responsible for all client contact and communication with adversaries, my ability to recognize, develop and understand legally relevant facts is substantially increased. Second, I am a far better advocate after several months of appearing before judges and conferring with my adversaries. Overall, I believe the confidence that comes from making my own calls in my own cases is the greatest asset I have gained through this externship.

Weil, Gotshal & Manges has participated in the Associate Externship Program at Legal Services for New York City, Brooklyn Branch, for almost four years. When the firm began its program, a memorandum went to all Weil, Gotshal associates. It included this question: "What impact will an externship have on my career at the firm?" The firm's response was clear:

A very positive one. Participating in the externship program will be viewed as one way for associates to take the initiative with respect to their own professional development. It will evidence the attorney's effort to become a well-rounded practitioner who acts on his or her own personal commitment to give back to the community. Associates who volunteer represent the firm and help fulfill the firm's ethical and moral obligation to provide significant pro bono services to the community. The management committee and the business and securities litigation department partners and the corporate department partners all enthusiastically support this program. Accordingly, participation in the externship program will be considered a service to the firm.

Additional law firms are urged to participate in the program, for the neighborhood law offices of Legal Services for New York City, especially now, are under enormous pressures because of difficult economic times for so many poor New Yorkers. The city's overall poverty rate in 2000-2001 was 20.2 percent, compared to the national poverty rate of 11.7 percent. In New York City, 29.5 percent of children live at, or below, the poverty level. (A family of four is classified as poor if it had a cash income of less than $18,104. The official poverty levels, updated each year to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index, were $14,128 for a family of three, $11,569 for a married couple and $9,039 for an individual. Nationally, according to the Census Bureau, in 2001 the number of poor Americans rose to 32.9 million. There are 6.8 million poor families in the country. The number of "severely poor" Americans rose to 13.4 million in 2001, from 12.6 million in 2000. Severely poor means having a family income of less than half of the official poverty level.)

Opportunities for transactional lawyers and litigators are available in the Associate Externship Program in the areas of housing, domestic violence, benefits, consumer, health, employment, economic development and education law.

In housing cases, associates represent clients from initial intake through settlement, or litigation of the matter. Legal work includes motion practice, negotiations, settlements and trials. Each associate works closely with experienced attorneys at a Legal Services for New York City neighborhood office. Associates participate in, and conduct client interviews; prepare pleadings and motion papers; prepare witnesses, and appear in court on a regular basis.

On domestic violence cases, associates participate in, and conduct client interviews; prepare pleadings and motion papers; conduct evidentiary hearings for orders of protection; prepare witnesses, such as doctors, teachers and police officers, and appear in court and represent clients in administrative hearings.

Law firms and lawyers interested in exploring participation in the Associate Externship Program should contact Volunteers of Legal Service at

Legal Assistance to Microentrepreneurs

Providing legal assistance to microentrepreneurs presents another pro bono opportunity for transactional lawyers.

Many poor people have a skill in a particular area - food preparation, clothing design, operating a beauty salon, child care, writing - and have the entrepreneurial spirit to start their own business, but have little practical knowledge about setting up a business. Many are looking to gradually expand a home-based business. The availability of valuable legal advice is helpful to persons of very modest financial means and limited business experience. Without this project, they would have no access to legal services.

VOLS recruits law firms for the project and then matches the firms with non-profit economic development agencies in New York City working with microentrepreneurs. The agencies identify low-income microentrepreneurs needing legal assistance, and transactional lawyers from law firms volunteer to represent the microentrepreneurs.

Volunteer lawyers provide one-on-one representation on business-related issues and make presentations to groups of microentrepreneurs on basic legal matters, such as the appropriate structure for a business, or the leasing of commercial space. The project serves microentrepreneurs in all five boroughs of the city.

Here are examples of legal services provided by four of the fourteen law firms participating in the VOLS Microenterprise Project:

• Corporate and real estate lawyers assisted the owner of a video editing and distribution company on the extension of a commercial lease agreement. After a month of discussions, the parties were able to agree to a short-term extension of the lease which also allowed the client the option of leaving the premises at any time during the new term, with a seven-day notice sent to the landlord. The landlord also agreed to make necessary repairs to the premises. Following this successful outcome, the client wrote to his pro bono attorneys: "Thank you for all your patience and help. You managed to create a harmonious situation out of what started to turn into chaos." (Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton.)

• Lawyers are working with an artisan who has been informally manufacturing and selling jewelry of her own design for years. She wanted to formalize her business. Corporate, tax and intellectual property attorneys are assisting her. (Cleary, Gottlieb.)

• In addition to individual representation, lawyers make presentations on business legal matters to groups of microentrepreneurs. One lawyer, after making a presentation, wrote that "The thoughtful and difficult questions that were presented at the seminar exemplify the determination of these entrepreneurs to succeed." (Dorsey & Whitney.)

• After receiving pro bono legal assistance, a microenterprise client has gone on to open a retail store in Harlem. Another, who is in the food preparation business, now receives orders from Dean & Deluca, the Manhattan gourmet store, and Bloomingdale's. (Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.)

• Lawyers provided business legal assistance to a partnership of three women who operate a small department store in a turn-of-the-century brownstone in Harlem. Each partner operates a separate business and the partners also lease space in the building to other microentrepreneurs. The businesses in the brownstone work cooperatively and help one another grow and attract customers. (Paul, Weiss.)

• A few years ago, Dean Mayo walked into the offices of White & Case. He, and his wife, Helene, had been referred to the firm by the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, matched with White & Case by VOLS in the Microenterprise Project. The Mayos wanted to open a Subway sandwich shop franchise in the Bronx. They had prepared a business plan and were ready to go, but the franchise agreement was a contract of adhesion and Subway refused to negotiate a single provision. Lawyers at White & Case walked through the agreement with the Mayos, making sure that they understood each provision and its impact on their business. One of the more troublesome provisions required the Mayos personally to be a party to the agreement. They were allowed to set up a corporate entity to operate the shop, but would be personally liable for any problem arising between themselves and Subway. White & Case helped the Mayos set up a limited liability company, "Hold the Mayo, LLC", that would operate the shop. Though they would not be insulated from personal liability as to Subway, at least they could protect themselves from the occasional slip-and-fall-type suit a customer might bring. White & Case lawyers also reviewed their bank loan documentation and helped negotiate their lease. Last June, the Mayos' shop opened in the Concourse Plaza Food Court. The firm invited the couple to come speak to its summer associates. It was the first time the Mayos had left the store during business hours. They described their daily challenges. The White & Case summer associates gained a better understanding of the day-to-day realities of a small franchise business and the role that they, as lawyers, can play to help clients achieve their business goals.

Edwin S. Maynard, a partner at Paul, Weiss, and former chair of the firm's Public Matters Committee, writes of the lawyers at his firm who participate in this project:

For the attorneys involved, there has been a significant number who found the work to be not only rewarding but also a valuable learning opportunity. Many of these representations require the lawyers to go a step beyond their usual practices, to brainstorm very basic alternatives with the client and to explore the strategies and goals of the business with the client at a more fundamental level than a transactional attorney does in a typical representation. Most satisfying, however, to the attorneys involved is the opportunity to work with these clients and their budding businesses and to experience the pride and excitement, as well as determination and hard work, that the clients feel for and put into their work.

Additional law firms are encouraged to join the VOLS Microenterprise Project.

William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.