Catching Up On the “Deferred Associates in Public Service Placements” Phenomenon

I recently contributed an article on Class-of-2009 deferred law firm associates to the ABA Division for Legal Services’ Dialogue magazine.

Starting last fall, deferred associates began public service placements with host organizations throughout the country.  The placements have ranged in duration from three to four months to over a year. Inferences drawn from NALP research suggest that the number of associates in  public service placements could be as high as 900 individuals out of the approximately 3,200 associates who were deferred nationwide.

Major legal markets are hosting the largest numbers of deferred associates.  The National Law Journal reported last November that there were upwards of 140 deferred associates taking placements in New York City nonprofit and government offices.  In the civil legal services community, the NYC Bar Association and the City Bar Justice Center launched the “Deferred Associate Law Extern Support Project” to train and monitor the progress of deferred associates.  Chicago’s legal services community welcomed 54 deferred associates from the Class of 2009.  In California, the Public Interest Clearinghouse has counted at least 55 associates working with nonprofits throughout the state.  Associates are also contributing in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and in other smaller markets.

In terms of associates’ substantive contributions to their host organizations, reviews from all parties involved – the hosts, the law firms, and the associates themselves – are generally quite positive…

Regardless of the peculiarity of its origins, and whatever its ultimate impact on the employment and pro bono landscapes may be, the short-term result of [the deferred-associates-in-public-service- placements] phenomenon has been that deferred law firm associates have gained first-hand perspective on the importance of public service work that is likely to endure after they return to their law firms.  For example, it is possible that deferred associates working in public interest organizations today will be tomorrow’s public interest fundraisers and pro bono advocates. Most importantly,  deferred associates increase the pool of lawyers supporting the work of government and fighting for access to justice for clients on society’s margins.  That is the brightest of silver linings.

At a time of extraordinary need in the public interest community, it has been heartening to see that deferred associates have been able to help bolster the delivery of services to low-income clients.  And in the longer term, such successes with deferral placements may lead to more robust collaborations between law firm pro bono attorneys and public interest ogranizations.

In the shorter term, the only potential negative that has troubled me has been the prospect that law students and grads on public interest career paths could be displaced because deferred associates may literally be taking up the desk space where those students want to work as interns and later as attorneys.  I went to law school knowing that I wanted to go into civil legal servcies, so I would understand how current students who wish to do something similar might be disconcerted about being squeezed out by a deferred associate.  There is no getting around the fact that it’s a hard time right now for law students/grads looking for nonprofit jobs, and for nonprofit law offices (and more importantly, their clients).  I hope that those students and grads can take some comfort in a sentiment that Jennifer Thomas, the Director of Legal Recruiting at the DC Public Defender Service, offered when I was writing about deferrals late last year.  Noting the importance of a commitment – as demonstrated through work experience – to a public interest career when evaluating job candidates, Jennifer said, “A passionate commitment to public service is a chief criterion in our hiring process…and that will remain long after the recession has gone.”

Steve Grumm

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