The state attorney general’s office is still finding scores of recruits for its Volunteer Associates in Public Service program, launched in 2009 when the recession in New Jersey’s legal profession hit rock bottom.
The program offers training in a spectrum of work in the Division of Law — touted as New Jersey’s largest law firm — and a chance to move into paying jobs as deputy attorneys general.
Since its inception, VAPS has received about 350 applicants and accepted about 175. Of those, 41 were hired for full-time positions that opened up as a result of attrition.
Division of Law Director Christopher Porrino says the volunteers — there are 33 this year — provide a cadre of professionals whose usefulness outweighs the training and supervision they require.
“We haven’t had a situation where we’ve felt overburdened by the numbers,” he says. “I suppose there could come a point where the numbers swell to a degree where we’d have to slow down, but we haven’t hit that point yet.”
The applicants are “generally very impressive,” which is “a function of the market that we’re in,” Porrino says.
The program reviews and selects applicants throughout the year on a rolling basis. Most applicants get a response within 30 days of applying, and many in about two weeks.
Once aboard, VAPS participants receive the same training as regular deputies, including on conflict issues. They’ve done work in each of the division’s roughly 30 sections, and, depending on experience, handle a range of tasks, such as conducting depositions, researching, brief writing and making court appearances.
Regular deputies train them. “As lawyers on the private side will tell you, it often takes young lawyers a few years to become what I’ll call productive members of the team,” Porrino says. Still, “we expect that they will provide work product that is consistent with the very high standards that we set,” he adds.
Volunteers are asked to commit to 20 hours or more per week for at least three months. Most meet that standard, while many stay significantly longer, sometimes a year or more, and some put in full workweeks, Porrino says.
Participants, especially lawyers doing other legal work, are screened for conflicts. Porrino says he’s not aware of any current volunteers who are practicing elsewhere. Some are receiving stipends from their law schools.
Participants also are free to seek paid positions — in and out of the division — and take nonlaw jobs.
The office touts the program to law schools periodically, but the advertising is mostly word of mouth.
“If the work was mundane and the learning curve was not as steep as it is, people would not be happy, and the program would not have succeeded,” Porrino says.
Aside from the typical selling points — making personal connections and gaining practical experience — Porrino says spending part of the week engaged in legal work, on top of time spent seeking a job, makes VAPS enrollees more marketable to employers.
In addition, they have access to all training and continuing legal education sessions offered through the Attorney General’s Advocacy Institute, he says.
VAPS is not the only opportunity for volunteer work offered by the government in New Jersey.
In July 2011, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s office began posting job openings for unpaid “Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys.”
Fishman was following the lead of at least 21 other U.S. attorneys’ offices nationwide that had advertised volunteer positions. His office is still advertising special assistant positions on its website.
The U.S. attorney’s program is more restrictive. Deferred attorneys who already have been or will be compensated by a firm during the term of the one-year position are ineligible, although those who’ve received a severance or have an unpaid future commitment to a firm are accepted.
In addition, special assistants are precluded from performing outside, paid legal work, and nonlaw jobs must be approved.
Stephanie Richman, assistant dean for career services at Rutgers Law School-Newark, says VAPS comes recommended by alums.
“The feedback has been positive,” Richman says. “It allows them to market themselves to other employers.”
Aside from those who can’t find work, VAPS is a good opportunity for attorneys who previously made a career change — or otherwise stopped practicing — and are looking to re-enter the field, Richman says.
In terms of flexibility, an unpaid position with the U.S. Attorney’s Office is “a different animal” compared with VAPS, Richman says. The former is “certainly a much, much larger commitment” that “makes sense for a very limited number of people,” she says. •