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Commentary: Pro bono internships done right

Having written critically about the implications of major law firms offering newly hired associates to fill vacant judiciary clerkships, it seems only fair to cite a more positive trend. In October 2009, the Associated Press reported that a number of major law firms had postponed the start dates of new hires they recruited before the economic meltdown and were paying hundreds of “deferred associates” reduced stipends to spend a year doing public interest work until the business slowdown ends.

The report cited blue-chip firms like Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Ropes & Gray and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe as offering such pro bono internships.

The arrangement allows associates to gain valuable experience that will benefit them and their employers later, and the firms to 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, and (according to the head of 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 who 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 with judicial internships, there is little question of “influence peddling” with these organizations when the associates eventually take their places at their 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 I’ve discussed in this column previously. Students graduate even from the most prestigious law schools with little practical experience in the everyday aspects of being a lawyer, then are often 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 whole pro bono concept also benefits. Requiring associates to have six billable hours a day seems like a lot, yet times five days times 50 weeks it provides only 1,500 hours per year – well below what most firms target for associates. Raising the target to eight billable hours a day gets to 2,000 hours a year, close to what most firms expect. Yet 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. degree that suddenly appears to be less valuable. Pro bono internships give them income today, the prospect of a law firm job tomorrow and experience that is invaluable. And who knows – some of these interns may just decide that there is life beyond the megafirms, and choose a career in public interest service.

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