Thursday, March 19, 2009

Large Firms Starting Trend of Offering Laid Off or Deferred Associates Stipends to Work in Public Interest

CNN reports that while the legal industry is taking an unprecedented beating from the sputtering economy, many megafirms across the country are viewing the slump as an ideal time to help out the cash-strapped public interest. Rather than just handing out severance packages with pink slips, some firms are giving laid off associates an option: work for a public interest group and the firm will pay a fraction of the associate's original law-firm salary for a year.

Once insulated, law firms are shedding young and mid-career associates at extraordinary rates. This is especially true at large corporate firms that overestimated their growth and extended too many offers to associates last fall. At least 2,149 attorneys have been laid off in 2009, bringing the total to 3,045 since January of last year, according to, an industry web site tracking the slump. Hundreds more associates set to start jobs this fall are bracing themselves for rescinded offers and deferred start dates. Some students are finding their summers wide open as some law firms have canceled internship programs.

The silver lining in this downturn is that it presents a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to transform the legal profession according to Esther Lardent, President of the Pro Bono Institute in Washington D.C., who began discussions this month with at least 15 corporate firms nationwide about placing unemployed attorneys in public interest firms. The project will get under way in a few months.

Other firms have already encouraged attorneys to go into the public sector. Just last week, one of the largest firms in the country -- Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania -- announced it will pay deferred associates graduating in 2009 a $5,000 monthly stipend for one year if they secure a job in the public interest field. Firms are also scrambling to find work for mid-level attorneys in the public sector. Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett LLP, a major New York-based law firm, recently introduced a yearlong public service fellowship program that will pay current attorneys $60,000 a year to work in areas such as social service, community development or academia.

Encouraging laid-off and deferred attorneys to go into public service is filling a desperate need at public interest firms which have long been under-funded and overwhelmed with cases. Tightened state budgets and a decline in donations have further stretched their resources, forcing them to make staff cuts at a time when demand for their services is greater than ever before.


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