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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Silver lining in recession

New lawyers, law firms and legal aid agencies all benefit

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Bill Hirsh and Diana Hughes
Deferred as a first-year associate with a large law firm, Diana Hughes signed on with AIDS Legal Referral Panel in San Francisco. Executive Director Bill Hirsh says the pairing is a win-win situation; Hughes gets experience and the panel gets help.

Diana Hughes had a choice. Like many 2009 law school graduates, she received notice from the firm where she had accepted a job that the starting date was being delayed because of the flailing economy. A graduate of UC Hastings College of the Law, Hughes could hold on for a few months without pay and start in the Silicon Valley office of Dewey & LeBoeuf in January at the regular starting salary or commit to working in a public interest law organization for a year with a stipend less than half of what she’d make as a first-year associate.

“I thought it would be a really great thing to get my legal career started,” says Hughes, 26, who heard about AIDS Legal Referral Panel in San Francisco through a moot court instructor and was hired to work there. And it was an opportunity Executive Director Bill Hirsh didn’t want to pass up, either, especially because of increased demand for his group’s services at a time when funding is declining. “We got her trained, and she’s up and running, and she’s very valuable to us,” he says. “She’s really proven herself to be a very effective attorney.”

Hughes represents people with HIV or AIDS with legal issues centering on housing and benefits. She interviews clients, negotiates with other attorneys and landlords and seeks grants when a client has money difficulties. “It’s all direct client work, something I wouldn’t necessarily be doing as a first-year associate,” says Hughes.

Law firms have taken different approaches to living up to their commitment to hire summer associates at a time when they’re suffering economically. Some offer a stipend and require no work at all — the associates can lie on the beach if they choose. Others, like Dewey, which promoted the idea of a public interest fellowship for new associates even in good economic times, give the choice of a later starting date or a stipend for doing public interest law. A few allow deferred associates to take work at a corporation while still paying the stipend.

A study of pro bono counsel by Deborah Rhode, director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, and Scott Cummings, a law professor at UCLA, found that even with stipends of between $50,000 and $80,000 for deferred associates, firms were saving between $60,000 and $100,000 per associate “because the salaries and support for these junior lawyers would exceed the profit they generate at current billing rates.”

There are two reasons law firms go to so much effort to hold onto fresh-out-of-law-school associates even when they can’t give them full-time work, Rhode says: they want to have a prepared class when the economy does turn around, and they have invested a great deal in recruiting. Also, Rhode notes, “it salvages their reputation.” Making an offer and then withdrawing it “doesn’t win friends in the circles in which they’re trying to recruit.”

“We made a commitment to the summer associates who are being deferred that they would work for us,” says Rene Kathawala, pro bono counsel at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe. “Notwithstanding that we have all suffered — as all law firms and citizens have in this crisis — we wanted to be true to our commitments.” In addition, Kathawala says, sending young associates to work in public interest organizations “ties into what we try to do from a community responsibility perspective.”

It also provides a good training ground. Associates who work for public interest organizations come to the firm with valuable experience.

“You’re talking about a very, very talented group of individuals, and we made offers to them for good reason: They’re folks we want to have here at the firm,” says Jason Costa, media relations manager at DLA Piper. “We want to make sure when they join us they have had all the opportunities they should have — meaningful work, career development.” The program offers two big pluses to associates, Costa says — they’re working with the knowledge that they have a future position with the firm and they are building skills and developing a better understanding of the legal process while making a difference.

Christine Hung
Christine Hung

Like Hughes, Andrew Ardinger (Stanford Law), Vishali Singal (UC Hastings), Christine Hung (Boalt), Jason Hamilton (UCLA Law) and André La Roche (Stanford Law) will start with their firms with skills they may not otherwise have acquired for years. Ardinger, working at The Public Interest Law Project (PILP) in Oakland with an offer from Orrick, has drafted petitions, motions and declarations, framed cases and interviewed clients. “He’s loving it. We’re loving it,” says Stephen Ronfeldt, co-director of PILP. “A lot of second- and third-year attorneys would like to have this experience.”

Vishali Singal
Vishali Singal

Singal, La Roche and Hung are all working for Public Advocates in San Francisco. Singal is using her background in affordable housing to make sure government requirements are met. La Roche has done policy and grassroots advocacy with allied organizations and community groups. Hung has worked on a major employment case as well as several educational issues.

Hamilton has done case research and case development. He got a job with Public Counsel in Los Angeles after being deferred twice. “The opportunity that I have here is incredible,” he said. “I’m getting to do great work and learning from people. I’m not falling behind the curve.”

The free help doesn’t mean legal aid lawyers sign on casually. “On the one hand, it sounds terrific: We need help and people can commit for an extended amount of time,” says Jamienne Studley, president and CEO of Public Advocates. But public interest leaders still had plenty of questions. Did the organization have training capabilities? How would associates’ projects be sustained, knowing they would leave? Would firms send their weakest hires? How would other attorneys feel knowing the new attorneys would make more money? On that question, Studley says, “We talked about it internally and the comment from one of my many thoughtful staff attorneys was, ‘If we were using our own money to pay somebody, it would be a problem, but since there’s no cost to us and we need the help, we’ll get the benefit.’”

Studley says public interest organizations hope the relationships will last.

And the firms concur. Pro bono counsel at law firms “saw temporary placements as opportunities to reinforce commitment to pro bono work and to build a constituency for its support within the firm,” according to the Rhode and Cummings study, which will be published in the Fordham Law Review. “My hope,” one pro bono counsel told the researchers, “is that I have all these [associates] with areas of expertise … [who] will come back knowing what it is to be a [public interest] advocate [and who] will … continue to have deeper connections with groups that they went to work with.”