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Laid-Off Associates Can't Give It Away

Vivia Chen

June 10, 2010

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Good news: There's some great work available in the public sector for deferred or furloughed associates. The bad--and unfortunate--news: If you are a laid-off associate, you're out of the box for these volunteer programs.

In New York, The Legal Aid Society picked up the largest number of deferred or furloughed associates this past year, says Esther Lardent of the Pro Bono Institute. It hosted 38 associates, starting in fall 2009. Steven Banks, Legal Aid's chief attorney, says his organization is now busy evaluating another crop of deferred and furloughed candidates for next fall.

"We want to make sure that they are interested and have the right background [for legal services work]," Banks says. "Like Cravath, we are looking for the best people."

Legal Aid can afford to be picky. Banks says the agency received over 100 applicants for those 38 spots. It's also been immensely popular with some of the associates who interned there: Over ten of them want to stay on rather than return to their firms, says Banks. (See related story, "Culture Shock for Deferred Associates?"). "Whether we'll have positions depend on the city's and the state's budgets."

At New York City's law department, there's also ample work. "At least 25 furloughed and deferred associates in New York City have found temporary gigs this fall at the city’s law department—and there’s room for more," reports the American Bar Association Journal's blog. The ABA site calls Gotham's law department a "haven" for deferred associates who want to keep their skills sharp. 

The volunteers at both Legal Aid and the city's law department get stipends from their firms--about $5,000 a month to $75,000 a year, according to the Pro Bono Institute. The ABA blog says that the city's volunteers get great experience:  Besides working alongside assistant corporation counsel on class actions and a range of other matters, they "also tackle their own clients and cases on less-complex issues, such as small claims disputes."

The experience offered at Legal Aid and New York's law department seems terrific. So it's a pity, that there's no welcome mat at either organization for laid-off associates--the ones who really need to boost their resumes.

Last year, New York City's law department actually opened its doors to laid-off associates. At that time, NYC's corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, told New York Law Journal, "[It] seems to me that these lawyers who have been laid off have [had] a blow to their ego, to say the least." He added that the program could be a "great psychological boost."

But this year the policy changed. "We no longer take associates who've been laid off," says Connie Pankratz, a spokesperson for the law department. "We found they were finding jobs quickly."

I have no reason to doubt that some laid-off associates got lucky and found jobs. But I also know that there are plenty of out-of-work lawyers who still have no prospects.

I think there's another explanation for why these public organizations aren't extending a hand to laid-off lawyers: These casualties of the profession don't have much to offer besides their willingness to work. Legal Aid's Banks offers a pretty honest explanation about why laid-off associates are cut out: "Our focus is on associates who will go back to their firms and continue the pro bono pipeline." 

In other words, without a big firm behind your back, you can't even give it away. How sad is that?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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