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Last month we told you that Philadelphia-based Morgan, Lewis & Bockius was courting summer associates by offering full summer salaries for half-time work — the other half to be spent at public interest groups. Now it’s not only summer associates who are enjoying the newfound generosity of firms that may not have enough work for the young ‘uns. Menlo Park, Calif.’s Venture Law Group, struck by the crashing tech economy, plans to pay up to five of its full-time associates to leave the firm for a year to do public service work. “It’s a way for us to do something for the community,” says VLG director Don Keller Jr., who admits that the firm does little pro bono. It’s also an easy way to (temporarily) get rid of attorneys the firm can’t afford to keep. “It does achieve a financial goal,” says Keller. He expects the firm to reap substantial savings by paying each attorney on leave $3,500 a month to supplement their public interest salary. That puts the firm’s cost at one-third of a first-year’s regular pay. It’s no great shock, of course, that Venture Law Group, a premier Silicon Valley shop that made its name representing the kind of startup tech ventures that are now floundering, has suffered substantially from the bursting of the dot-com bubble. In late May the firm laid off 14 staff members — 9 percent of the firm’s total support staff — and fired nine attorneys, ostensibly for poor performance. Not everyone buys that explanation. “It’s a bit disingenuous,” says Lori Nelson, director of career services at University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, speaking of layoffs at several Silicon Valley firms that have been portrayed as performance-based firings. “They’re blaming the lawyers, rather than admitting that it’s downsizing,” says Nelson. “It’s a hard, cruel world, but many of these are people who are just starting careers. It’s a tough break for them.” Keller admits, “There’s no question that economic conditions played a part in how aggressive we’ve been on the performance side.” With attrition low, he says, “we looked at every class and said, ‘Who are the people most likely to be long-term keepers and partners at the firm?’ “ Some did not make the cut. But there’s still not enough work for the keepers. Some of them will now get the chance to go do public service work; who and where is still being decided. Keller hopes to be able to welcome them back from public service after their stint is over — but there are no guarantees.

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