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Deferred associates put time at pro bono groups to good use, survey suggests

Monday, May 24, 2010

  • Jeff Jeffrey
  • National Law Journal

Initial reports from a Pro Bono Institute survey suggest that the push to have deferred associates spend their downtime at pro bono organizations worked out better than expected — or feared.Institute President Esther Lardent said that many of its member law firms and public interest groups Ester Lardenthad worried about how well young lawyers who had expected to join Big Law would fit in at public interest groups.

Pictured is Ester Lardent, President and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute in Washington, D.C.

By the time the 170 public interest organizations and 45 law firms who responded returned the survey — polling closed on Feb. 22 — those fears seemed overblown. Indeed, 97.3% of public interest groups said they would host associates again.

The survey, entitled "Law Firm Deferred Associates and Public Interest Placements," has just been released. 

Before the economic downturn, 63% of public interest respondents said they had not hosted a full-time associate from a law firm.  But 67% actively sought out deferred associates.

"The one thing that we heard over and over again was that there was a greater demand for deferred associates than were available," Lardent said. She attributed that to the lack of an "organized and centralized" system for placing deferred associates at public interest groups.  According to the survey, 53.2% of public interest respondents said law firms were not involved in placing associates at all.

Some public interest groups also reported they had trouble working with "rigid" law firm procedures.  Others said that firms took a hands-off approach to placing associates and that there was a "lack of coordination" on things such as benefits, oversight of associates and communication with the firm overall.

As for the associates themselves, Lardent said that the public interest respondents' open-ended responses were overwhelmingly positive.  "It speaks highly of the profession and the associates themselves that, regardless of who their client was, they bring their exceptional skills to bear," she said.  "There was an extremely high level of satisfaction."

Most of the law firms that responded said it was too early to tell how well the deferred associate placement programs worked, although some indicated that the hands-on legal experience the associates received was a benefit.  Lardent said that question will likely be answered more fully in about four to six months when more associates come back from their deferrals.

The survey found that 67.4% of law firms deferred at least some incoming associates.  Of those, 53.6% deferred them for one year. Seventy-seven percent of firms that deferred associates said they did not provide an additional incentive to accept a pro bono job. Just 10% required deferred associates to take pro bono jobs.

Stipends given to deferred associates ranged from nothing to $5,000 per month to $75,000 for a full year.

Lardent said that as more firms move away from the traditional lockstep model for associate advancement, secondments to public interest groups may be another means to develop associate skills. "While we need to see more data on how well the deferment programs worked, we have been hearing from some firms that the associates who went to work at public interest organizations are performing at a more advanced level than those who stayed at the firm," Lardent said.  "It really seems to be a win-win situation."

Jeff Jeffrey can be contacted at


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