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April 29, 2009 5:21 PM

3L Dilemma: Will Deferring For a Year Save Their Jobs?

Posted by Rachel Breitman

As we have reported in the last few weeks, firms such as Goodwin Procter, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, Orrick,Herrington & Sutcliffe, and Ropes & Gray have offered incoming first-year associates the choice between a three-to-six month deferral, or a year-long internship at a nonprofit. With just weeks left before they graduate, many law students remain divided about whether to pursue public sector work for a year, or start at the firms in January or March as planned. In this economy, both options seem to have their own risks.

"Nobody knows the answers," says Susan Guindi, assistant dean for career services at University of Michigan Law School. Michigan's career service center held a town hall meeting for students on these issues the first week in April. "Is it riskier to be away from the office, and not establish the connections, or are they more likely to get laid off if they go directly to the firms, but do not have enough work to do?"

While the firms have maintained that the year-long deferrals are optional, several law students told The Am Law Daily that they felt an implied pressure to take the year off.

One 3L, who is going to Weil Gotshal, has opted to start on time in January 2010. He rejected the optional January 2011 start date, which would have included a $75,000 stipend--plus bar fees--to do public sector work or $60,000 plus bar fees to just take the year off. "I am anxious to start my career on time," he says. (Like other law students interviewed for this story, the 3L asked to remain anonymous to avoid offending his law firm.)

In general, most of the firms deferring until January, have seen about half of the new hires choosing the year-long internship. At Dewey & LeBoeuf, more than 40 of the 88 U.S.-based associates took year-long public sector placements with an $80,000 stipend, plus benefits and travel expenses. At Ropes & Gray, almost 40 new associates have applied--from a class of more than 100. (They will receive $60,000, plus a bar stipend, travel expenses, a salary advance, and health insurance for work in the nonprofit sector.) At Goodwin Procter, more than 60 of the class of 125 incoming first-years already have expressed interest in year-long nonprofit work, which will come with a $60,000 stipend, plus bar fees.

But for firms that automatically deferred all of their new associates for a full year, close to 100 percent of the young lawyers they hired have chosen to take a stipend to work in the public sector.

At  Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which has deferred all of its 65 incoming associates until October 2010, more than 60 are seeking volunteer opportunities, and more than 20 have already found positions. (The firm, as we reported earlier, will pay associates who work with a nonprofit, district attorney, or public defender office $5,000 per month, plus bar association fees and a bar exam stipend.)

"Because we deferred an entire class, the vast majority have elected to pursue the public interest option," says Amanda Smith, the firm's pro bono partner.

At Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, 43 of the 44 hires who have been asked to start in March 2010 were interested in the nonprofit or client route, according to the firm's most recent numbers. (Orrick will pay $75,000 for internships in government, nonprofits, or in-house at the firm's corporate clients' offices.)

"Everybody wanted to get in on an internship," a third-year law student, who has accepted an offer from White & Case, tells The Am Law Daily. After White & Case deferred start dates until fall 2010 for 60 percent of incoming associates, he sent the firm a list of his top choices for nonprofit or government placements. When he didn't hear back immediately about whether there was a spot for him at any of his choices, he found an internship in a public sector legal job that was close to his parents' home. White & Case would not comment on how many law students were granted public service fellowships, which were awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis and pay $75,000.

"In some ways, the people who got deferred for a year with a pro bono fellowship are in a better position than those who were only deferred for a few months, because our decision was easy," the 3L adds.

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