Sending incoming associates into temporary public-interest jobs — with a healthy stipend to cover their costs of living — is intended to be a fiscally smart and compassionate way for law firms to handle an overabundance of young attorneys in this dismal economy.

But some recent law school graduates who have spent years preparing for public-interest careers worry that law firms are hurting their job prospects by flooding the already competitive public-interest job market. They say they resent the suggestion that deferred law firm associates can step into a public-service role without, in many cases, having worked with indigent clients in law school clinics or completed internships with nonprofit legal organizations.

“Deferred associates are getting congratulated for going to public-interest organizations in the final hour and being so generous, while the people who were planning on working at these organizations throughout law school and have demonstrated a commitment are forgotten again by the legal establishment,” said Jane Fox, 28, who will graduate from Brooklyn Law School in New York City in early June. She is looking for a public defender position or other public-interest work in New York.

For people like Allison Standard, 24, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law who is searching for a public-interest job, the uncertainty over what the law firm deferral programs mean for hiring is unsettling. “The hard part is that there is no easy solution to this,” Standard said. “You can’t blame the organizations for taking the free labor. But people who intended on public-interest careers have been working throughout law school to build a path to these jobs, and they might get passed over.”

Brett Church, an incoming associate at Boston-based Goodwin Procter who chose to work at a nonprofit organization for a year, said he understands why some young public-interest attorneys may resent the deferred law firm associates. However, he sees potential for deferred associates to make a difference in their communities. “In this market, everybody is just trying to get by and find opportunities,” said Church, 28, who plans to work at a Boston-area organization geared toward helping children or young people before focusing on venture capital at the firm. “The fact that I went to Goodwin Procter doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about doing this type of work.”

Public-interest law students in the class of 2009 faced a harsh employment climate even before classmates on the law firm track came into the mix. Paul Igasaki, the deputy chief executive officer of Equal Justice Works, a group that promotes public-interest law careers, said that public-interest organizations have struggled with funding reductions from interest on lawyers’ trust accounts (IOLTA), lower donations and fewer grants, limiting their ability to hire. The associate deferrals represent another curveball. The programs vary by firm, but many involve paying a stipend to associates who have had their law firm start dates pushed back by a few months to more than a year and who choose to work at a public-interest organization in the meantime.

The stipends generally range from $60,000 to $85,000 for yearlong deferrals — meaning that deferred associates will make significantly more money than many public-interest attorneys. Some firms are even covering health insurance costs. By contrast, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reported last year that public-interest attorneys can expect to start with a salary of about $41,000.

CUTS AND FURLOUGHS

The public-interest organizations have to provide space, training and supervision, but the deferred associates are essentially no-cost help, at least temporarily. Latham & Watkins, Morrison & Foerster and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius are just a few of the firms that have offered to pay deferred associates who take temporary public-interest positions.

It’s difficult to gauge just how many deferred law firm associates are looking for public-interest posts, Igasaki said. No organization is tracking the number, but he estimated that it’s certainly in the hundreds and possibly in the thousands. Not every deferred associate with the option to take a temporary public-interest post will do so, he noted. Unlike law firms, public-interest organizations don’t hire in seasonal waves, and that will make it even harder to measure the repercussions of associate deferrals on public-interest hiring, he said. According to NALP, slightly more than 5 percent of employed law graduates held public-interest jobs in 2008.

“There will be an impact” on recently graduated public-interest students, “but exactly how much and in what way, it’s a little too early to tell,” Igasaki said.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area announced in May that it would cut six positions due to a reduction in funding and would lean on deferred law firm associates to fill some of the gap. A second Bay Area nonprofit — the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco — will furlough workers for three weeks starting in July. It, too, will bring some deferred associates on board.

The Legal Aid Society of New York planned to take as many deferred associate volunteers as possible, said chief attorney Steven Banks. He stressed that deferred associates will work as externs and won’t replace regular staff positions. “The externs will provide an important supplement to our staff, but we cannot have that replace our staff because after a year we would be left with their case­loads,” he said. The externs primarily will help the organization’s strapped civil and criminal defense attorneys reduce their caseloads, he said.

The Legal Aid Society’s hiring capability for full-time public-interest positions will be determined by the pending New York City budget. City leaders plan to cut money for the organization, Banks said. The society has already sustained a $6 million reduction in state and city support so far this fiscal year, he added.

Toya Carmichael will be one of seven deferred law firm associates arriving this fall at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, an organization that advocates against racial discrimination. The 27-year-old Georgetown University Law Center graduate thought she would be starting at Morgan Lewis in October, but the firm delayed the start date for the incoming class for a full year. It did offer a $60,000 stipend to those who secured yearlong public-interest jobs, however, and Carmichael sought out opportunities that had a public policy aspect. She sees her situation as a mixed blessing.

NOT WHAT THEY BARGAINED FOR

“It really wasn’t what we bargained for. It was confusing and it was stressful,” she said of the period following the firm’s deferral announcement. “But I think a lot of people are happy because they wanted to do this work in the first place but couldn’t make it work financially.”

Nora Carroll isn’t too worried that organizations will give deferred associates positions that normally would go to true public-interest attorneys. Carroll, 27, recently graduated from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, which is known for its large public-interest program. Deferred associates aren’t as qualified as public-interest specialists to perform the jobs in question, Carroll asserts. Still, she worries that public-interest organizations might delay hiring for permanent positions if they have stables of deferred associates who can temporarily fill in as interns or volunteers under the supervision of existing staff members.

Rene Kathawala, pro bono counsel to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, said such concerns are valid but fueled primarily by frustration with the tight economy — something with which law firms are also grappling. Orrick delayed the start date of more than half of its incoming associates until March 2010, offering all of them $60,000 if they took public-interest positions in the meantime. Forty-three have taken the offer, mostly to work in legal services organizations, he said. “Some have never really done anything significant in the public-interest arena, and a few I think were planning to work at Orrick for a couple of years before leaving to do something like this anyway,” Kathawala said. “These are first-year attorneys. They don’t really know what they are doing and they’ll need to get the proper training.”

Most law firms’ public-interest deferral programs are open to any interested incoming associates and don’t specifically target those with prior public-interest experience.

Michael Kendall, the hiring partner at Goodwin Procter, said he isn’t naive enough to believe that all the 62 associates in the firm’s public-interest program have a passion for nonprofit legal work. Nonetheless, Kendall said he has been impressed by their enthusiasm. Each will receive $60,000 pending their January 2010 start dates at the firm.

Church, the Goodwin Procter associate, was initially torn about whether to participate.

“It took me awhile to digest it. I was geared up to begin my career, but at the same time I’ve always been interested in public service,” said Church, who spent the summer after his 1L year interning at a Boston organization that offers free legal representation to low-income residents. “I came to the conclusion that, in 20 years, I’ll look back on this opportunity and be thankful I took the chance.”

HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS

Beyond any damage to her own career prospects, Carroll expressed philosophical misgivings about deferred associates taking public-interest roles as a temporary fix for law firms’ financial woes.

“If you think about the haves and the have-nots in this country, it’s really two different sides,” she said. “As corporate attorneys, these deferred associates may end up fighting against whatever their public-interest organization advocates for.”

Fox, the Brooklyn Law School graduate, said that her feelings about the situation vacillate from bitterness to hope that deferred associates will let public-interest organizations expand desperately needed services. Fox completed several clinical externships while in law school and spent summers working for the Legal Aid Society in New York, focusing on prisoner rights and criminal defense for indigent clients. Fox was amazed by the commitment and experience shown by her public-interest classmates, who represented clients in family and criminal court, worked overseas and drafted entire appellate briefs.

“We have so much to offer potential employers, but these deferral programs edge us out in one big way,” she said. “We don’t come with a $70,000-plus salary with benefits intact. Psychologically, it’s hard to deal with that reality.”

Recent public-interest law graduates in the Northeast seem to be the most worried about the deferred associates, as many of the large New York-based firms are offering public-interest deferrals. The situation hasn’t been a major topic of conversation among students at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., said recent graduate Kelley Amburgey, 28. Law firms in Portland aren’t deferring incoming associates, said William Penn, the public-interest law coordinator at Lewis & Clark, which traditionally has sent half its graduates into public-interest and public-service jobs. Still, the Portland public-interest organizations are starting to hear from deferred law firm associates from other cities looking for work, he said. “There’s at least a little resentment going on,” Penn said. “The public-interest students are thinking about how they have worked and volunteered with these organizations. There’s a little feeling of ‘We’ve paid our dues.’ “

For all their frustration and anxiety, public-interest law students recognize that there is a lot of unmet need for free legal assistance and advocacy. They said that they were holding out hope that public-interest organizations find a way to use the free labor while also hiring them for permanent positions. “My continuing impression is: The more the merrier, as far as going into public interest,” said Geoffrey King, 28, who recently graduated from Stanford Law School. “There’s always work to be done. It’s nice to have the extra resources, even if it’s temporary.”

King has accepted a job as a staff attorney with the First Amendment Project, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, Calif., that provides legal representation to journalists, artists and activists. He acknowledged that his take on deferred associates is somewhat colored by his employment status. “Personally, I would be panicking if I didn’t have a job.”