A Positive Look Back On Law Firm Deferrals and Public Interest Placements

By: Steve Grumm

The Legal Intelligencer, based in the Glorious City of Philadelphia, has a piece reviewing the phenomenon of associates whose law-firm start dates were deferred taking short-term public interest placements.  This mostly affected the law school graduating class of 2009, but also some subsequent grads. 

According the article, while deferrals certainly marked a rocky patch on a law-school-to-law-firm employment path that was typically smooth, some deferred associates enjoyed rich experiences that have impacted their careers, and lives, for the better.

The bulk of the piece focuses on Ballard Spahr’s deferral class:

When the “bottom fell out of the legal market” in 2009, [Ballard’s pro bono counsel] Mary Gay Scanlon said, [the firm] found itself unable to provide work to several dozen recent graduates who had accepted positions in the firm.

“We quickly said: ‘Wait a minute, maybe we can salvage something for everyone here. We can make sure that these young lawyers — some of the best and the brightest — have good work to do for this year,'” Scanlon said.

The firm offered stipends to first-years to develop their skills elsewhere.

Not all deferred associates practiced law in the interim. Ballard Spahr made the temporary job location dependent on individual interest. Thus, the young lawyers worked in corporations, government agencies and public interest firms, with one deferred associate going to graduate school.

When deferred associates started at Ballard Spahr in 2010, Scanlon said their experiences developing new abilities in areas of personal interest to them were a plus to clients.

A major post-deferral benefit to the firm was the associates’ commitment to pro bono programs. Deferrals created “in-house experts and in-house advocates for a variety of different pro bono opportunities,” said Scanlon, bringing “strength in new areas” to the firm.

Scanlon noted that big firms appreciate this kind of specialized knowledge.

“Poverty law is not a part of our daily practice,” she said, and it’s highly beneficial to have “someone who’s an expert in U visas or a whiz with asylum or SSI disability cases” in-house

The piece goes on to look at the public-interest work of deferred associates from various firms, whose placements included stints in civil legal services, immigration and civil rights advocacy, and even an academic placement in Kenya, which last year implemented a new constitution.

I am most intrigued by the thoughts of one Ballard associate who practiced family law with Philly’s Community Legal Services:

As a trial attorney at Community Legal Services, [Lisa] Swaminathan handled cases from start to finish — mainly child welfare cases.

“That was the experience that I was looking for … [to get] to court … to know the people who I was representing, to learn how to work for a client,” Swaminathan said.

At the end of her deferral year, Swaminathan chose to stay on at CLS for an additional year, taking a temporary position the shop funded through stimulus money.

With two years of public interest work under her belt, Swaminathan finally joined Ballard Spahr this September.

Scanlon called Swaminathan a “star.”

She brings to the firm a client-focused philosophy of work from her two years at CLS.

“I learned … that [my clients were] the driving force behind everything I was doing, and it can be harder to learn that when you’re just starting out,” Swaminathan said.

Working with colleagues in the public interest community, I played a small role in facilitating deferral placements in 2009.  (In 2010 I wrote a status report of sorts about how deferrals played out.)  I was hopeful that the experiences would give the associates an understanding of the opportunities and challenges of public interest practice.  I further hoped the associates would come away with positive feelings so that they would become tomorrow’s pro bono advocates and financial supporters.  But I also hoped that the associates would develop skills and expertise that would be useful in their law firm practices.  I’m sure this trifecta did not come to fruition in every case.  But this article is welcome news.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URL

Leave a Comment