Mar 30, 2009

The Economics of Law Firm Deferments and "Public Interest Placements"

There's a storm that's been brewing across Ameri¢a with this economic nuttiness. Law firms have been letting scores of lawyers go, and the once golden opportunities that locked people just entering their 3L years into jobs with fat paychecks when they graduate have all but dried up. The firms this year have been rescinding offers, and for some people, telling them that they can start in January instead of September, or that they can get a stipend for working in a public interest job for a year while the firm waits to see how the economy changes. That has led to new opportunities with all of these new lawyers who don't have anything to do - and many new challenges. First, an aside...

I've had an ongoing conversation with my sister that's spanned the last year or two about the way that there are stigmas that we both have to deal with - as a firm attorney and as a public interest newbie (not respectively). I say sometimes it's hard to convince the firm lawyers that my work is "real lawyer work" because I talk about and try to focus on community outreach, information sharing, non-legal advocacy, and respect for peoples' process rather than buy the line that this is a "nation of laws." For many firm lawyers, that just isn't "practicing law" - litigation is practicing law, or burying the world in reams of paper is practicing law, but what I think of as the most exciting part of this work is something totally else.

My sis tells me that she thinks that public interest attorneys scoff at firm attorneys regardless of their situation because they act as if they are better (i.e. not sell-outs). She (and definitely other friends of mine) have spoken about the privilege that allows many people to go into poor paying jobs in public interest: it's not a shocker that many of these positions are taken up by white women from well-educated, moneyed families. If you're the first attorney in your family, you may not have the full flexibility to just go do whatever you want to do. I buy this for some people, but not everyone. I don't curl my lip up at someone just for working at a firm, but I do if they don't seem at least interested in the other work that's out there, and don't acknowledge the privilege that they have in some way.

This all is relevant because we're starting to get inquiries from graduating students who have been asked to seek a public interest placement while the firms wait for this recession to blow over. Suddenly, students and "bright stars" from the law firm partner fast track seem to need our organizations, because they have nothing else to do. The thing is: we want to help out, but it's a tremendous burden to take someone on just for a year (or worse, 6 months), and it's not clear what the organization gets out of it, save for another breathing (and demanding) body. At a time when resources are so hard to come by, I'm sure that many groups will take them up on these offers. But what does it mean for us and for our work at the end of the day?

I'm worried, because while I want to open up our work and the prospect of doing something meaningful in the community for these new lawyers. But I've seen what they are being offered to work in our organizations for the time being, and even though it may be only 50% or 60% of what they were being offered as first-year associates, it's still incredibly obnoxious, and possibly moreso than even the full amount because it suggests how the firms value working in public interest. Half their worth/earning potential in the private sector, but that's still double what we currently make. What that says is that either the firms and foundations have been keeping us down as full time folks committed to this work, or it's our management. Either prospect is fairly grim.

These are interesting times.


thecheddarbox said...

Crazy. I remember my sister telling me how one of her first realizations upon entering law school was that it really isn't an institution to train people to fight for justice, it's an institution to train people on how to protect rich people's money.

It makes a lot of sense then, why salaries would be distributed in the way that you are describing: those who choose to protect the elite's capital get paid more, those fighting for true justice within the law do not. I know this is a very simplistic generalization but it seems like there is some truth to it.

Keep on fighting, brother. I see how those with the right intentions and principles doing great public interest lawyering are practicing resistance everyday.


Rage said...

Yeah. I think part of my problem isn't so much what people are making in the private sector, though I definitely have huge issues with the differences (i.e. 4:1 ratio between a starting attorney in NYC working for a firm and a public interest job).

It's just that people should be working to elevate the nonprofit sector salaries too - not just try to dump more people into the sector at their own salaries (or even cut salaries that dwarf those of the people who will supervise them). What do you end up doing to the sector, and the envy/animosity that lies there?

Not a good formula at all.