A Deferred Law Firm Associate Wraps Up His Public Service Experience

Andrew Ardinger was one of many law school Class-of-2009 grads whose career path took an interesting turn when the law firm he was bound for – in his case, Orrick – deferred his start date.  Ardinger made great use of his time, spending the past 12 months with the Public Interest Law Project in Oakland.  Periodically during this past year, Ardinger contributed short update pieces to the American Lawyer, offering  a check-in about his public-service experience.  As he is preparing to return to BigLaw world, Ardinger penned a final piece looking back upon his time with PILP

 Now that I’m in the waning days of this fellowship, and I start to reflect on it, I keep coming back to the same thought: It’s been a great experience for me on a number of levels.

On a professional development level…this experience has been outstanding. As I have noted before, there are only six attorneys in the office, and one legal assistant. It was a very warm, genial work environment, and the two attorneys with whom I worked most closely were, from the first day, obviously committed to mentoring me and helping me develop as an attorney.

The PSLawNet Blog has been closely following the phenomenon of deferred associates taking temporary, public-service placements.  It’s a classic “on one hand, on the other” scenario.  So…on one hand, the public interest lawyer who lives inside of us finds these developments to be very beneficial, for at least a couple of reasons:

  1. The main reason is this: the concern ultimately has to be for the clients.  Nonprofit law offices were hit hard by the recession.  This caused tremendous difficulties for the staff, and for law students who were seeking to begin their career in this arena (we’ll get back to this in a moment).  But it’s the low- and middle-income client communities that were hit hardest.  And the reduced service capacity which the recession caused in many public interest shops meant that fewer clients could be served even as their numbers were increasing.  Deferred associates were able to shore up – and in some cases, expand – service capacity.  That’ s huge, and it came at a critical moment.
  2. Also, the public interest community benefits by forging strong relationships with the private bar.  Quite aside from pro bono work, money flows from the private bar to the public interest bar.  And in myriad other ways, law firms leverage their resources to support public interest work.  So if dozens, or maybe even hundreds, of today’s deferred associates have positive experiences during their public service placements,  they may become tomorrow’s pro bono advocates, board members, and financial supporters.  That’s a win-win.

But there is “on the other hand,” too.  PSLawNet’s mission is to support public-service minded law students and attorneys in achieving their professionals goals.  And it has been undoubtedly frustrating for many students and grads who want to commit their careers to public interest work to see the desks at public interest offices temporarily occupied by deferred associates who were there until business picked up at the firm.  To boot, many of the associates were living on firm-provided stipends which comfortably outpaced public interest salaries.  It is very difficult to measure how much of a “displacement effect” was caused by the deferred associate phenomenon, because frankly very few public interest organizations were in strong enough financial positions to hire new attorneys anyway (at least back in the throes of the recession).  Nevertheless, it was a daunting obstacle for those students who wanted to earn to a low salary in order to fight for those on society’s margins.

We suspect that as the legal economy emerges from the recession, it’ll make something of a return to the pre-recession “normal.”  Law firms will adjust staffing models to match business needs.  Public interest funding will stabilize gradually.  Now, there is discussion these days about whether a longer-term service model might emerge from the deferral model – something akin to the “loaned associate” programs that presently exist between law firms and public interest organizations.  Nevertheless, the prospects of those on public interest career paths feeling crowded out by their law-firm bound peers are diminishing.

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