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Just three blocks separate the cushy confines of Fulbright & Jaworski’s suites in Washington from the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, but for Wendy Butler Curtis, the locations are worlds apart. In the midst of a six-month stint with the attorney general’s office, Curtis’ career has taken a major departure from her usual tasks as a pharmaceutical defense litigator with Fulbright. She now is part of the firm’s attorney loan program with the AG’s office and has a caseload that includes the death of a man in a courthouse holding cell and a constitutional challenge to the local government’s facial hair policy. “I feel like that law student enthusiasm has been reawakened,” she said. Houston-based Fulbright & Jaworski is one of many law firms across the country that is lending its associates to a variety of government offices in order to give their lawyers much-needed trial experience. In Butler’s case, she’ll work 20 hours each week for six months. Other firms loan out their attorneys full-time for a few weeks. And the firms continue to pay the associates their sky-high salaries. EVERYBODY WINS Whatever the specific arrangements, a number of law firms and local governments are using attorney loan programs as a way to cultivate trial skills while at the same time providing cash-strapped agencies with lawyers from some of the country’s best practices. And while the legal aid defense bar warns that equal resources on both sides of the courtroom are critical to ensuring justice, law firms say they like loaning their associates to prosecutors’ offices for the rapid immersion into litigation that the experiences provide. With the vast majority of cases in the nation’s court systems settling instead of going to trial, law firms are eager to get their litigation associates in front of a judge or jury. According to a report released last year by the American Bar Association, the number of civil cases in federal courts resolved by jury trial plunged from 11 percent to 1.8 percent between 1962 and 2002. The number of trials each year fell more than 20 percent for the same period, the study showed. Trials at the state level also dropped off, from 27,567 to 19,264 from 1993 to 2002, according to numbers compiled by the National Center for State Courts. Despite the decline, law firms say they still need attorneys who can bluff their opponents into believing that a trial is imminent and can argue a motion before a judge. And on those increasingly rare occasions when a dispute lands in front of a jury, firms want lawyers who can handle the pressure. Attorney loan programs have become a popular way to hone those skills. The arrangement helps associates face their fears about appearing in court, said Nick Hanna, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. He handles the Los Angeles-based firm’s attorney loan program, which usually sends four associates with a few years of law firm experience to work for the Orange County district attorney’s office each year. After a week of orientation, the attorneys spend an eight-week block of time handling mostly misdemeanor cases for the county. Often, Hanna said, competition for the experience is tight among associates clamoring for trial practice. He and a coordinator for the government offices work together to find the best fit. Hiring consultants, conducting mock trials and providing opportunities to observe trials are good ways for firms to help train their associates, but enabling them to participate in the real thing makes for better lawyers who can better serve their clients, said Lonny Rose, executive director of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. Having attorneys who can convince an opponent that they are ready to take a case all the way ultimately helps the client, Rose said, even if, as is most often the case in private practice, the matter settles. “I never drive in the snow, but it would be nice to know how to do it if I was skidding,” said Rose, who is also a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law. NITA, a South Bend, Ind.-based nonprofit organization, teaches trial skills to lawyers, students and law school faculty at its own venues or on site at firms. Attorney loan programs are growing in popularity in part because working for the government helps reduce the risk of conflicts of interest that other pro bono work may entail, Rose explained, noting that public defense work is an excellent way for attorneys to improve their trial skills. Jo-Ann Wallace, president and chief executive officer of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, is concerned about the programs. She said that the equity of resources can be upset by putting associates from law firms in the prosecutorial function. She points to the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, adopted by the ABA in 2002, that calls for parity of the defense counsel function and the prosecutorial function. “When [the ABA] talks about resource imbalance or the requirement of parity, certainly additional staff is included. The practice raises that issue,” Wallace said. But Hanna questioned the practicality of an attorney loan program on the public defense side, where an attorney’s duty to the individual may be more time-consuming and onerous. He said that working for the district attorneys’ offices and other government agencies, many of whom are actively calling for assistance from the private sector, is a good way for associates to obtain meaningful trial experience in a relatively short time. Gibson, like other firms, pays its associates their full salaries while they are on loan and counts their time as billable hours. Consequently, acquiring a lot of experience in as little time as possible is important for firms that participate. Fulbright’s Curtis got a quick lesson the day she started at the D.C. attorney general’s office as a special assistant attorney. The senior associate immediately dove into a wrongful death case that was set for trial two weeks later. It involved a man who died from an asthma attack in a D.C. Superior Court holding cell while awaiting charges of drinking alcohol in public. Curtis said she was geared up for trial when the case settled for $943,000 the day it was slated to start. Although practicing for the attorney general’s office has revitalized Curtis’ enthusiasm for the law, she said she remains devoted to private practice, partly because of the money. She added, however, that after she leaves the district office she wants to work on pro bono cases, which can provide some variety to her law firm practice as well as allow her to help others. Currently, she is working on a case that challenges the constitutionality of Washington’s facial hair policy for its firefighters. The district argues that facial hair can break the seal on a firefighter’s mask. But some of the firefighters assert that beard wearing should be allowed under a religious exemption. “There’s definitely a diversity of the subject matter,” Curtis said. POSSIBLE RIVALRY The City of New York Law Department is mindful of any rivalry that might arise between its 650 staff attorneys and the private-practice associates who participate in its public service program, said New York City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, the attorney who heads the office. Lawyers from some of the richest firms in the country work for a short time at the city office and return to their high-paying jobs after they receive some trial experience. But because his staff shoulders some 90,000 cases, transactions and matters each year, they are eager to have the help, Cardozo said. The department, the third-largest law office in New York, has 17 divisions, which deal with real estate litigation, labor and employment, workers’ compensation and more. Three years ago, Cardozo established its public service program, which now involves about 40 law firms, including Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; and Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Many of the 40 firms also participate in the law department’s tort rotation program, in which attorneys send their lawyers for a four- to six-month rotation. The office estimates that law firms have contributed more than $20 million in attorney services since the program’s inception. The city of New York launched the program after Sept. 11, 2001, when the law department’s offices were destroyed and a backlog grew. “The city was reeling and we needed help,” Cardozo said. “I realized that unfortunately a lot of lawyers in private practice are not as happy as I would hope, and they weren’t getting the trial experience they needed.” Leigh Jones is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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