No law school graduate wants the beginning of a promised job to be deferred — but the experience of several graduates shows that maybe they should.
Although graduates typically don’t ask mom and dad for a deferral as a graduation gift, six to 12 months spent learning, litigating or exploring before starting practice can be a major benefit for both the deferred students and the law firms that defer them, according to several members of the legal community.
One law firm that framed deferrals as a personalized opportunity for professional development considered the process, with its pros and cons, an overall worthwhile venture given the experience that the associates bring back to the firm.
Ballard Spahr’s deferral year ended last fall. Mary Gay Scanlon, pro bono counsel for Ballard Spahr, said the benefits of deferrals were evident when second-year associates returned with experience in advocacy.
She said she is a “big proponent” of deferral programs but recognized that no one enjoyed “withdraw[ing] offers to [young lawyers] who we had an investment in. We didn’t want to leave them in a lurch.”
The challenge for the future is for law firms to get the benefits of deferral programs as “a regular part of the diet” without necessarily deferring all of the first-years at the same time, Scanlon said.
“It’s hard to get the right mix of situations where it’s worthwhile. The tension is that the law firm doesn’t want to give up a highly compensated associate for long periods of time,” she said.
Ballard Spahr has done a secondment-like scenario in which a few associates at a time work for a few months at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
In the case of the recession, Scanlon said, the deferrals of a larger group were worthwhile.
When the “bottom fell out of the legal market” in 2009, Scanlon said, Ballard Spahr found itself unable to provide work to several dozen recent graduates who had accepted positions in the firm.
“We quickly said: ‘Wait a minute, maybe we can salvage something for everyone here. We can make sure that these young lawyers — some of the best and the brightest — have good work to do for this year,’” Scanlon said.
The firm offered stipends to first-years to develop their skills elsewhere.
Not all deferred associates practiced law in the interim. Ballard Spahr made the temporary job location dependent on individual interest. Thus, the young lawyers worked in corporations, government agencies and public interest firms, with one deferred associate going to graduate school.
When deferred associates started at Ballard Spahr in 2010, Scanlon said their experiences developing new abilities in areas of personal interest to them were a plus to clients.
A major post-deferral benefit to the firm was the associates’ commitment to pro bono programs. Deferrals created “in-house experts and in-house advocates for a variety of different pro bono opportunities,” said Scanlon, bringing “strength in new areas” to the firm.
Scanlon noted that big firms appreciate this kind of specialized knowledge.
“Poverty law is not a part of our daily practice,” she said, and it’s highly beneficial to have “someone who’s an expert in U visas or a whiz with asylum or SSI disability cases” in-house.
For example, a deferred associate spent a year at HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia securing U visas for illegal immigrants victimized by crime, which, upon her return to Ballard Spahr, led to her training associates there and forming a pro bono practice group committed to the issue.
‘THE EXPERIENCE I WAS LOOKING FOR’
One of Ballard Spahr’s deferred associates, Lisa Swaminathan, worked at Community Legal Services during her deferral. Her work there centered on family law, an area Ballard Spahr doesn’t practice and in which she now has considerable experience.
While Swaminathan’s 2009 deferral created some uncertainty about the future, it wasn’t a shock, as many of her law school classmates were in the same boat.
Scanlon and others at Ballard Spahr eased any anxieties that Swaminathan had as they helped her explore possibilities.
“This was a chance to get our feet wet doing something really positive, so I was really excited,” Swaminathan said.
As a trial attorney at Community Legal Services, Swaminathan handled cases from start to finish — mainly child welfare cases.
“That was the experience that I was looking for … [to get] to court … to know the people who I was representing, to learn how to work for a client,” Swaminathan said.
At the end of her deferral year, Swaminathan chose to stay on at CLS for an additional year, taking a temporary position the shop funded through stimulus money.
With two years of public interest work under her belt, Swaminathan finally joined Ballard Spahr this September.
Scanlon called Swaminathan a “star.”
She brings to the firm a client-focused philosophy of work from her two years at CLS.
“I learned … that [my clients were] the driving force behind everything I was doing, and it can be harder to learn that when you’re just starting out,” Swaminathan said.
She said she learned how to represent clients, make arguments and be persuasive “in a legal sense.”
“It’s a hard thing to take someone out of law school and get them to a point where they can walk into a courtroom and represent a client, and I felt like I really got that at CLS,” she said.
Chris Sousa, an attorney in Morrison Foerster’s San Francisco office, was another deferred associate who got substantial litigation experience in his deferral period.
Sousa spent six months at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia starting in the fall of 2009.
It was a “great experience,” he said.
He said at PILCOP they “threw me into projects on the first day.” The experience taught him to think on his feet, he said.
A student at Georgetown University Law Center when he learned about his deferral from Morrison Foerster, the career services staff at Georgetown Law — not Morrison Foerster — helped him find his temporary job at PILCOP.
The benefit of the deferral for Sousa was the varied nature of his work at PILCOP. Along with authoring an amicus brief with Jennifer Clarke, PILCOP’s executive director, for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Sousa helped with a federal civil rights case that is still pending in the district court of New Jersey, as well as did administrative work, appeared at hearings and participated in strategy sessions with seasoned attorneys.
“That’s really what I look back and am happy that I spent my time doing,” he said.
Although Sousa was unsure whether or not to categorize deferrals as positive or negative overall, he said, “For me, I certainly had a positive experience at PILCOP.”
Patrick Yingling, who is currently deferred from Reed Smith, classified deferrals in general as a good thing.
He said advance notice of his four-month deferral allowed him to make the best of it. Others with different circumstances could have a less positive experience, he said.
Six attorneys are still deferred from Reed Smith and will join the firm in January 2012: Yingling is one of them. Currently, he is serving as a visiting lecturer to students at the Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya.
After working for Reed Smith during the summer of 2010, Yingling was offered a job and subsequently deferred. With one year of law school to finish, there was ample time to make arrangements for his deferral period.
Yingling, in an email to The Legal Intelligencer, said, “I would have to say that I am happy that Reed Smith gave me this opportunity to see the world before beginning my career with the firm.”
Since 2010, Kenya has operated under a new constitution, so the country “is especially ripe for intriguing legal discourse at the moment due to its new constitution,” Yingling said.
Most beneficial from Yingling’s deferral has been the chance to “meet some incredible people and discuss legal issues that are not often discussed in the United States.”