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Culture Shock for Deferred Associates?

Vivia Chen

May 26, 2010

Farming out deferred associates to work in public interest organizations during the economic downturn was a smashing success--at least that's my take after reading the Pro Bono Institute's just released report on the subject. (Here's the report summary.)

Esther Lardent, PBI's president, says, "The result was overwhelmingly positive," for the firms and nonprofits. Before the program got under way, "there was a huge concern whether this would work," she says. One worry was whether associates might fit into the nonprofit culture and have difficulties "adjusting to nonposh offices." Another concern, she adds, was whether the presence of big-firm associates at the nonprofits "would create issues with long-term staff and [indigent] clients."

As the report finds, those weren't issues. In fact, over 97 percent of the public interest organizations said they would gladly roll out the welcome mat for associates again.

It strikes me as a no-brainer that this program would be a success. The indigent benefited, as did understaffed public interest organizations--not to mention the firms that got some respite from having to pay full salaries to a bunch of thumb-Tweeting, Facebooking associates during the slow economy. 

Isla_del_Coco-chatham_beach And, of course, the deferred associates loved the experience. Who wouldn't? They got to work for the greater good while taking home a tidy stipend (which the report says ranged from $5,000 a month to $75,000 a year) from the law firm. It's like being sent away to do community service in Costa Rica, with your parents footing the airfare and food. You might not be staying at The Four Seasons, but the beaches are sure nice.   

Moreover, the associates got juicier, more meaningful work than they would have gotten as a junior cog at a big firm. "They've developed confidence and skills that they could never have gotten at a firm; they know how to handle a difficult client, do discovery, and argue a motion," says Lardent. "They're not fifth-chairing a litigation."

One public organization in the report says that it received "overwhelmingly positive feedback" from its  associate-participants, adding "some don't want to return to their firms."

But camp doesn't last forever, and most will likely return to the corporate grind.

My bet is that the return to reality could be tough. "Having client contact and seeing the impact of your work more directly might lead some to decide that big-firm practice is not for them," says Lardent. "But if the firms are smart and structure things right, they won't assume that these people have to start from ground zero."

So, dear deferred associates, are your firms putting your talents to good use? Or are you stuck doing due diligence and document markups? Feeling existential yet?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected].

Photo by  Jon Rawlinson, Wikipedia.


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As every geographical area has its own value and importance similar to that every organization has its own rule and culture

The job market for new law grads is still in shambles. What if you're looking to hang your shingle and work for yourself? Heavy emphasis on family-work balance, in that order:
Billable Burnout Solutions, Inc.


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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: [email protected]

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