Volunteer lawyers: Young casualties of Big Law layoffs and deferments are offering themselves to government service as a way to stay in the game and gain experience. But are they free labor for cash-strapped government officials, or arrogant leeches slumming in the public sector while their Big Firm cleans house?
An occasional look at how laid-off legal professionals cope with a crisis economy.
“It is arrogant to think that new lawyers from Big Law firms can pick up the work of criminal defense in a short time span without considerable institutional investment in their training,” Contra Costa County’s Public Defender, David Coleman, said in an email this week. Only after months of training is there a potential net gain for the public sector law office.
Furthermore, Coleman writes, letting in BigLaw carpetbaggers is no way to treat your dedicated attorneys:
It is not fair to young lawyers who have willingly chosen the public sector at “50 cents on the dollar” for what big firms pay to have their opportunity to accrue trial experience diminished so that same trial experience can be obtained by a civil firm lawyer who
1/ eschewed lesser compensation in favor of high salaries and bonuses,
2/ had less interest in the criminal justice system,
3/ is destined (chomping at the bit) to return to Big Law as soon as the Firm will have them back.
In the same email exchange, Coleman points out that a new lawyer in a DA’s or PD’s office in Contra Costa may handle 20 jury trials in their first year of work. “That is the number of jury trials that a civil lawyer might have in, say charitably, 20 years of work.”
Coleman notes that if the volunteer is willing to do less glamorous grunt work, that calculus might change. Why should a deferred associate get the same opportunities as the young lawyer or student who is truly committed to the cause?
Plus, what if you like them? … after the jump.
Assuming the eager volunteers don’t abandon you the minute the economy turns around, what if you can’t keep them? What if you spend all summer feeding the puppy, and then your budget-conscious parents won’t let you keep it?
“You almost feel committed to the person,” says Morley Pitt, an assistant DA in San Mateo County, “and it’s very difficult because the person becomes attached to the office and the office becomes attached to the person, and if there’s no one leaving, we literally have no job.”
Pitt says his 55-lawyer office doesn’t take volunteer attorneys, but given the amount of interest since the Big Law meltdown began, they’re thinking about it. After all, for all the drawbacks, there’s still a pretty tempting upside:
“We’re receiving free assistance from a lawyer.”
— Petra Pasternak