Law firms are sending their associates to public interest law jobs in droves because they don’t have enough work to keep them busy.

That’s a good thing for public interest organizations, right?

Well, yes and no.

Public interest law groups are generally excited to have law firm resources directed their way, given that many are chronically underfunded and that the demand for low-cost and free legal services is exploding due to the economy.

But the exodus of law firm associates is happening a little too quickly for comfort, and organizations are scrambling to figure out how to make the process efficient — instead of overwhelming.

“It’s happening so fast. To a certain extent, there is a lot of concern,” said Paul Igasaki, the deputy chief executive officer of Equal Justice Works, which promotes public interest legal careers. “At the same time, there is great interest in having the assistance. Most organizations are eager to work something out with the law firms.”

Equal Justice Works is one of several public interest law organizations trying to establish some best practices to deal with placing law firm refugees in nonprofit organizations for a few months or a year.

Hidden costs

As legal work has dwindled, law firms have been looking to public interest programs to help take some pressure off their payrolls. Some firms are encouraging incoming associates to work temporarily in public interest because of start-date delays, while others have offered their current associates the chance to work in public interest for a year and receive a reduced salary by the firm. The arrangements vary widely among firms, with some programs covering salary and benefits and others not covering those costs.

Despite the offers to cover salaries while their associates work at nonprofits, there are still hidden costs and issues that may arise for public interest legal organizations, said Karen Sarjeant, the vice president for programs and compliance at the Legal Services Corp. (LSC) — a nonprofit organization that steers federal funding to 137 programs across the country that provide legal services to low-income clients.

Some of those larger LSC programs will likely take in law firm associates, but the cost of training, equipping, supervising and providing space for law firm refugees will be too high for others, Sarjeant said.

“There is a cost to bringing people into your program, even if you don’t have to pay their salary,” she said. “Some programs will decide that taking advantage of this opportunity comes at too high a price.”

Funding is never far from the minds of public interest law administrators. Those programs have seen funding from interest on lawyers’ trust accounts (IOLTA) dry up significantly in recent months, and grants from private foundations have also slowed as endowments have been pummeled by the financial markets.

“There is so much more need than resources right now,” Sarjeant said.

Stealing opportunities?

Beyond hidden costs, public interest groups see some other potential problems with taking in law firm associates. First, the easy availability of low-cost labor from firm associates may take away opportunities for other young attorneys who intend to pursue a career in public service.

Second, programs could be left in the lurch if associates return to their firms in the midst of a case or a project.

The Asian American Justice Center (AAJC) recognizes those challenges but also sees lots of opportunities with these new law firm programs. As soon as Deputy Director Vincent Eng realized that law firms were pushing associates into public interest work, he jump-started some projects that temporary law firm associates could work on.

They include providing legal assistance for taxi drivers in San Francisco, implementing a national litigation program in Washington and examining voters rights and census issues in Chicago. The programs are designed to be relatively short-term, given that some law firm associates may be available only for six months or a year.

Five law firm associates and soon-to-be associates are already in the process of accepting positions at the AAJC and its affiliated organizations, including Jiamie Chen, a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Chen is heading to White & Case — one of the firms allowing incoming associates to work in public interest for a year because their start dates were pushed back. The firm has offered to pay incoming associates $75,000 to take public interest jobs for a year, an option Chen immediately knew she wanted to pursue.

“I would have liked to do some pro bono work for the AAJC as an associate at the firm anyway, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity,” said Chen, who plans to work in Washington on the litigation project. “It’s great because the firm is giving their full support to the effort, and that’s important.”

While Chen is on track to secure a public interest position, Eng said that not every law firm associate will have such luck. The AAJC has already turned away a handful of law firm associates looking for a temporary spot. “Supply is going to exceed demand, as far as the public interest arena,” Eng said.