Ian McLean, San Francisco

Associate, Woodside

Took a one-year paid deferral from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in 2009 and did not return

Unlike the hundreds of associates who lost their jobs during the downturn, transactions lawyer Ian McLean didn’t have to leave his firm, Skadden. But in 2009, the firm made him an offer: Under its Sidebar Plus program, associates could leave the firm for a year and be paid a third of their salary. In addition, the firm gave them a lump sum to help pay off student loan debts and kept them on its insurance plan. Skadden guaranteed that their jobs would still be there when the program ended, and they wouldn’t owe the firm anything if they did not come back. “For me it was a no-brainer,” McLean says.

He joined a friend at a solar energy startup but it imploded four months after he got there. Still receiving his reduced Skadden paycheck, McLean began working for a former Skadden partner, Greg Smith, who had started Woodside, which advises emerging companies. “When the time came to go back to Skadden, they offered me the job back, but I really enjoyed the work that I was doing,” McLean says. In addition to having more direct interaction with clients, he says, the relaxed pace at the two-person firm has its appeal: “One of the great things about working for [Smith] is that if we’re too busy, rather than have me pulling all-nighters, we just say no to an assignment, which doesn’t usually happen in big firms.”

Today, McLean is ready to move on to a new job and has started looking for in-house positions at startups or larger Bay Area companies like Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

McLean says the Sidebar Plus program served its purpose well: “All the attorneys who stayed were glad because they got their [required] hours, and the people who took it were glad because they got to have some fun or do other things.” There is another reason he is pleased with his choice too. “This is a personal note, but I had started dating a girl, and it’s hard to date someone when you’re at a big firm,” he says. “Now we’re engaged to be married. It makes me wonder whether that would have necessarily gone [the same way]. I’d like to think it would have, but there’s always that risk.”—Sara Randazzo