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Many of the San Francisco Bay Area’s public interest law groups are feeling squeezed as the sluggish economy eats away at the donations and funding on which they depend. But while the economy has robbed these nonprofit groups of vital funding, it has also mitigated the hardship by putting a surplus of legal talent at their disposal. Scores of attorneys, idled by law firm layoffs and hiring freezes, are turning to public interest law. Legal aid organizations that couldn’t fill open staff attorney positions a few years ago now find themselves inundated with resumes. And unemployed attorneys are even volunteering their services for the groups. “You never want to get volunteers for this reason, but there’s always a silver lining in any moment,” says Tanya Neiman, the director of San Francisco’s Volunteer Legal Services Program. “I guess the silver lining of these layoffs is that the potentially available work force is even bigger for us.” Organizations with paid staff attorney openings report a marked increase in the number of resumes they’re receiving. Peter Reid, general counsel of the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, said that in the past the group had trouble filling positions because its salaries couldn’t compete with what the private firms offered. “Attorneys who might have applied here looked around and said, ‘I can’t live in San Mateo County on a legal aid salary.’” Today, however, Reid is getting applications not only from the usual assortment of public interest-oriented candidates, but from people with a job history at private law firms. “We have noticed a bigger cross-section of people applying now,” confirmed John Doherty, the directing attorney of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley’s AIDS legal services division. Many of the skills that an attorney builds working for a private firm are transferable to public interest law, said Doherty, especially in areas like litigation and employment law. “There might be less [transferable skills] for someone who’s been doing IP work because we don’t do those things,” he said. Given the woeful state of the job market, it’s not surprising that attorneys are applying for whatever job openings come along — public or private sector. But many legal aid organizations say the renewed interest they’re getting isn’t purely mercenary — they’re also seeing an increase in volunteers. Lawyers with time on their hands, looking to keep their skills from getting rusty, are knocking on nonprofit doors. “People know that they can put pro bono work on their resume. It can fill a hole until you get something else,” said VLSP’s Neiman. One of VLSP’s main programs, the Community Organization Representation Project, is getting about 20 percent more calls from attorneys looking to do pro bono work, estimated Supervising Attorney Hayd�e Alfonso. Many of the callers are victims of law firm layoffs. “They find that it’s an opportunity to revisit what they’re doing with their legal career,” said Alfonso. “Some are considering entering other areas of law, not necessarily going back to a traditional law firm.” At Bay Area Legal Aid, volunteerism is at an all-time high. Executive Director Ramon Arias said three to five years ago attorneys would volunteer after their regular working hours, or on an as-needed basis if they were working as co-counsel on a case. Today, however, Bay Area Legal Aid has five volunteer attorneys working either full time or two to three days a week. “I don’t think that we’ve ever had that many,” said Arias. While the extra help has allowed the organization to serve more clients, Arias stressed that it is not a replacement for a staff of experienced attorneys that specializes in public interest work. “A lot of the volunteers that come to us don’t have much prior experience in our particular area of practice,” said Arias. “As much as we welcome them, they’re not necessarily the answer in the long run.” And since many of these attorneys are only volunteering on a temporary basis, there’s a risk in becoming too dependent on them. “One of these days the economy will improve,” Arias pointed out. “Then what?”

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