It’s a rite of passage for graduates of top law schools. With offers in hand from prestigious firms, these charmed young legal brains take the bar exam, flit off to exotic locales for the traditional post-exam holiday, then return in the fall to begin their lives as first-year associates with salaries that top those of federal district judges.
Not this year. Hundreds of first-year lawyers were told by firms across Washington that their start dates had been pushed back by as much as a year. Dubbed “deferred associates,” they’re symbols of a legal industry battered by the economy. “A lot of people are really just depressed about the whole situation,” says Joe Records, who had his start date at Wiley Rein delayed until next fall.
The news isn’t all bad. Several law firms, including Wiley Rein, have offered stipends of about $60,000 to deferred lawyers. Some firms are requiring, or at least encouraging, them to spend the coming months at public-interest organizations. Thus, in an odd twist, the deferred lawyers are probably still making more than many attorneys who do public-interest work full-time.
Though it’s $100,000 less than what they’d planned to make as first-year associates at major firms, a $60,000 stipend is more than the median salary for a lawyer at a civil legal-services organization. “For a smaller nonprofit organization, $60,000 might be close to what the executive director makes,” says Steve Grumm, director of public-service initiatives for the National Association for Law Placement, which has helped connect the deferred associates with public-interest jobs. Bringing on associates making upward of $60,000 for the year could cause resentment.
Public-interest groups have also expressed concern about the costs of housing and training the deferred lawyers, even though they don’t have to put them on their payrolls. Some firms, such as Steptoe & Johnson, are providing funding to the organizations, in addition to stipends for associates, to help cover those expenses. Others, such as Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, are not. Morgan, Lewis’s pro bono partner Amanda Smith, who led the effort to match the firm’s deferred associates with public-interest jobs, says the organizations that chose to host the lawyers “made the decision that the cost-benefit analysis was really in their favor.”
Morgan, Lewis deferred its entire incoming class of associates for a year and is paying them a stipend of $5,000 a month on the condition they serve in a legal position in the public-interest sector. The firm’s more than 60 deferred associates in DC are spending the year at places such as the National Veterans Legal Services Program and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We wanted them to develop their legal skills in a way that would be useful,” says Smith.
Other firms weren’t as strict. WilmerHale gave incoming associates the option of delaying their start dates for a year in exchange for a $75,000 stipend. There was no requirement that the lawyers do public-interest work—thus they get $75,000 to sit on the beach or travel. Carol Clayton, Wilmer’s assistant managing partner, says about half of the firm’s incoming associates in DC elected to take the year off. Several chose to work at nonprofit legal organizations, such as DC’s Legal Aid Society. The others? Well, they’re probably enjoying other “activities” during their paid year off.