Young Lawyers Turn to Public Service
WASHINGTON — In August 2008, Nathan Richardson committed to following in the footsteps of so many young lawyers before him: a summer position with a big law firm, followed by a job offer before he ever cracked open a third-year textbook. And then everything changed.
With offers of employment made in August 2008 and the full force of the recession hitting in October, many big law firms — like Latham & Watkins, where Mr. Richardson was a summer associate — had to re-evaluate the job offers made to members of the class of 2009. As a way to keep their costs down while holding on to promising associates, many offered the graduates the chance to take up to a year off before starting as associates, complete with a stipend of $60,000 to $75,000. They could travel, do research, or choose — as many did — to work in the public sector.
With the deferral year ending, some of these newly minted lawyers are surprised to find themselves reconsidering their career goals and thinking about staying with public interest law. When Latham & Watkins asked Mr. Richardson to defer his start date until at least October 2010, he took his interest in environmental issues to Resources for the Future, a nonprofit policy group based in Washington, where he did legal research on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and climate change.
Now, despite heavy student-loan debt and a family to support, he has decided to say no to Latham and stay with public interest law, even though it pays far less.
"This is an amazing work environment,” said Mr. Richardson, who graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. “I’m working with a lot of really smart people and getting published. I’m not sure if there’s anywhere else I could do this, at least at this point in my career.”
Mr. Richardson claims that everyone he knows has at least considered staying in public interest — and law school faculty members confirm that they are seeing a growing interest in that field.
Other deferred associates like Avi Singh see public interest law as a “sustaining motivation” that keeps him coming to work every day. Mr. Singh is a 2009 Harvard Law School graduate who decided to stay on with the Santa Clara County public defender’s office in San Jose, Calif., instead of returning to the firm Quinn Emmanuel after a four-month deferral. “Here, I’m helping clients on a very basic level,” he said.
“What’s interesting about the deferral process is that, even though I thought it wasn’t right, it got me to pursue what I wanted to do in the first place,” Mr. Singh said.
Educators say more students are holding on to their attraction to public interest law throughout law school.
“For the first time, there is now a public interest lawyer in the Oval Office,” said Diane T. Chin, the director of the John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law at Stanford Law School, as one explanation for why more young lawyers are considering service careers.
In 2009, 25 students entering their third year at Stanford Law indicated a commitment to public service. In 2010, that number was 36, according to Ms. Chin. The average class size is 180.
Alexa Shabecoff, the assistant dean for public service at Harvard Law School, said: “There is an uptick in global interest in public service that has trickled down to the high school level, and students go on to college and law school with a public service ethos.”
For some, an interest in public service is why they go to law school, but a load of debt and a traditional pipeline move them toward the private sector.
David Stern, executive director of Equal Justice Works, an organization devoted to getting new legal talent in the nonprofit and public sectors, notes that the pay gap between public interest and private firm work is steep. “The gap is multiples of the public interest salary, with a public interest attorney starting at, on average, $35,000 to $39,000 a year,” he said. “In a big law firm, these attorneys are starting at $140,000 to $150,000.”
Someone who took a stipend from a law firm and then opted for public service law could also find themselves negotiating a payback plan for the stipend; policies differ from firm to firm on whether or how much of a stipend must be repaid.
Jennifer Romig, another 2009 University of Chicago graduate, decided to return to the Washington office of Ropes & Gray after her deferral year, but said her experience at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in New Orleans would color the rest of her career.
“Like most law students, I had intentions of doing pro bono work,” Ms. Romig said. “Now, after having spent an entire year seeing what a difference you can make, the theoretical has become real. And I cannot imagine forgetting that.”
Some in the legal community perceive a sense of competition among recent graduates who were once on different career paths. “I think it is hard for those wholly committed to public interest to see their deferred friends getting jobs at great public interest organizations while they struggle to land their dream jobs,” said Ms. Shabecoff, the assistant dean at Harvard.
But it could be that nonprofits would have few, if any jobs, for entry-level lawyers because of the economic climate, and deferred associates are picking up the work for public interest groups that would otherwise be slashing services because of budget cuts.
Tiela Chalmers, the executive director of the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the San Francisco Bar Association, said the seven deferred associates who worked there for a year were invaluable in providing legal services for the indigent. After three full-time employees left in 2009, Ms. Chalmers was prepared to freeze hiring and make do with a depleted staff. Then she heard about this wave of graduates being offered stipends from law firms to work in the public interest sector, often with salaries higher than those of an entry-level legal aid attorney.
Her group, like other nonprofits, was able to offer training and substantive work without the burden of paying a salary.
“It’s a win-win, even if public interest firms have to take on the training,” Ms. Chalmers said. “Given the realities of the economic climate, a year is a long time to have these very bright folks. We get eight or nine months of really strong work out of them” before they return to their firms. Without the deferral program, she believes her group would have handled only half of the landlord-tenant disputes and domestic violence cases from the past year.
For Mr. Stern and Equal Justice Works, the short-term benefit is evident: “In the relay race for justice you always need fresh legs, because it’s really hard work.”