Pro bono internships done right

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Published on 12/7/09

Having written critically about the implications of major law firms offering newly hired associates to fill vacant judiciary clerkships, I think it's only fair that I cite a more positive trend.

In October, the Associated Press reported that, in postponing the start dates of new hires recruited before the economic meltdown, a number of major law firms are paying hundreds of "deferred associates" reduced stipends to spend a year doing public interest work on a pro bono basis until the business slowdown ends. The report cited blue-chip firms like Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Ropes & Gray and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

The associates gain valuable experience that will benefit both their employers and themselves, and the firms hold on to talent that they recruited heavily.

There is also sacrifice involved on both sides. The stipends may be 50 percent of the starting salaries the associates expected in boom times. Meanwhile, according to the Pro Bono Institute, the firms cannot claim "credit" for this pro bono service because the associates are not yet employees.

The real beneficiaries are cash-strapped nonprofits, legal clinics and legal aid societies that get free assistance from top-quality law graduates at a time when their needs are greatest and they have little or no money for new help.

Unlike the judicial internships, there is little question of "influence peddling" with these organizations when the associates eventually take their places at the firms.

And best of all, to quote the report, some of the firms "hope sending recruits into the field before bringing them on board full time will become a permanent feature of legal hiring."

This, of course, harkens to the apprenticeship idea that we have discussed in previous columns. Students graduate from even the most prestigious law schools with little practical experience in the everyday aspects of being a lawyer and subsequently often are buried in research and document processing for their first several years in their new firms.

The hands-on experience that the pro bono apprentices will get "in the trenches" at legal aid societies and similar pro bono institutions will stand them in good stead for years to come.

The entire pro bono concept also benefits. Requiring associates to have six billable hours a day seems like a lot, yet it works out to only 1,500 hours per year — well below what most firms target for associates. Raising the target to eight billable hours a day yields 2,000 hours a year, closer to what most firms expect.

How can associates get that many billable hours per day and still do pro bono work? The internship idea seems the perfect answer.

The reality of 2009 is that many newly minted graduates from top law schools are $200,000 or more in debt for a J.D. that suddenly appears to be of less than premium value. Pro bono internships give them income today, the prospect of a law-firm job tomorrow and invaluable experience.

And who knows — some of these interns may just decide that there is life beyond the mega-firms and choose a career in public interest service.

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