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Law firms give associates a chance to build skills while doing good

Rather than lay off junior lawyers, some firms are lending them to public interest practices where they can handle weightier issues and gain courtroom experience.

April 06, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Emeka Orjiakor spent his first six months as a real estate lawyer in a sleek glass-and-steel downtown high-rise. Now he's feeling more down to earth in the humble offices of a public-service practice, helping the poor fight foreclosure and eviction.

Orjiakor, an associate at Sidley Austin LLP since September, is on loan -- at a substantial pay cut -- to the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice through a program designed to retain young talent whose jobs are disappearing in the recession.

Across the country, the junior end of the law firm hierarchy has been taking the brunt of layoffs, pay freezes and furloughs as business shrinks and firms trim their payrolls. Summer associate programs are being scrapped or reduced, and many spring graduates who were promised positions for the fall are being asked to delay their start for as long as a year.

But one silver lining is the altruistic use to which some firms are putting their surplus lawyers, seconding them to defend the poor, champion worthy causes or provide full-time pro bono lawyering.

Orjiakor says giving back to society was a strong motivation for going to law school, but student-loan debt and interesting commercial work distracted him from those goals when he graduated from USC's Gould School of Law in May.

Economic necessity has brought those objectives back in focus.

"What's going on right now in the economy is definitely threatening. Everyone is pretty uncomfortable about their positions," Orjiakor, 24, said of his class of last-hired associates scrambling to avoid being the first fired.

Orjiakor said he chose to work at the law center because he was familiar with the area's housing woes, having gone to high school at Bravo Medical Magnet in Boyle Heights before his family moved to Carson.

"There are a lot of civil rights challenges over there, especially with the housing and the slumlords," he said. "Growing up there, I've seen a lot of injustice, the lack of resources, people who just didn't know their rights and were being abused."

Public-interest work fellowships are being offered to a handful of associates in Los Angeles and Chicago as the firm searches for productive ways of weathering the economic downturn, said Anne E. Rea, managing partner of the California offices of Sidley, a global firm with 1,800 lawyers.

"We invest a lot of time and resources in recruiting talented lawyers. We want them to stay with us and be productive and successful," Rea said. "This enables them, in slow times, to continue to develop and get training."

Latham & Watkins, with 2,100 attorneys around the world, has asked its new hires from the law school classes of 2009 to show up in mid-December instead of the end of summer. It has also offered one-year community service work for $75,000 to incoming associates willing to delay their start until October 2010, said Frank Pizzurro, public relations manager for the firm, which is headquartered in Los Angeles.

At San Francisco-based Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, about 70 third-year law students who were promised jobs after graduation have been asked to show up in January or March 2010, or to take a yearlong fellowship in public service.

"We're saying that, given the economy and our work flow, we are confident you will have a great opportunity to gain meaningful skills helping worthy organizations or clients, perhaps even a better experience than you might get as a first-year associate," said Rene Kathawala, pro bono coordinator and counsel for the 1,100-lawyer global firm.

While salaries for first-year associates run about $160,000 at top firms, those on loan to public service groups will earn about $60,000 to $75,000 for the year, in line with what veteran public-interest lawyers earn.

The public-interest associates are eagerly awaited, but they won't be entirely cost-free.

Integrating them into publicly funded organizations will require investments of time as well as money for equipment, office space and supervision, said Karen Sarjeant, vice president for programs and compliance at Legal Services Corp..

"The environment of a legal services program is very different from the environment of a law firm, and there will certainly be a need for orientation and training and familiarization with poverty law practice," she said of the nationwide network of 900 Legal Aid offices.

Some corporate law managers want to lend lawyers for as little as three months, which some potential recipients fear is too short to make the temporary stint cost-effective.

"Some wouldn't have the resources to cover health and malpractice insurance, computers, all the costs associated with taking on new people," said Paul Igasaki, deputy chief executive officer for Equal Justice Works.

Psychologist Larry Richard of Hildebrandt International helps law firms and legal departments with people issues. Public service isn't for all lawyers, he says, as some choose the profession because of the affluent lifestyle it often affords.

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