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November 3, 2009 2:43 PM

The Deferred: Go West, Young Lawyer

Posted by Drew Combs

MatthewKane1 Matthew Kane's professional future seemed bright, and settled, in the fall of 2008. That's when the then third-year Boston University School of Law student accepted an offer to join Kelley Drye & Warren in the fall of 2009 as a first-year associate.

Kane had expected that by now, he'd be settled into the firm's Park Avenue offices in New York City, meeting new colleagues, learning the ropes of life as a newbie lawyer.

Instead, he finds himself occupying an altogether different kind of office. He's on the West Coast in Los Angeles's Koreatown neighborhood, adjusting to a new job with Public Counsel, a legal aid organization. His days are devoted not to major transactional matters for Kelley Drye's clients but to advising health care clinics about HIPAA regulations and helping affordable housing projects meet federal HUD guidelines.

Kane is one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of law school graduates who have seen their initial plans to join law firms derailed, at least for the moment, by the fallout from the recession.

While the deferment "phenomenon" is widespread, it isn't clear exactly how many recent graduates have seen their start dates delayed, says James Leipold, executive director of NALP. "We have research projects in the works that will try to quantify deferments, but at the moment the market is still in flux when it comes to entry-level associate positions."

As we've written before, in an effort to manage expanding capacity, many Am Law 200 law firms deferred the start dates for incoming associates. While the goal is the same, these programs come with varying stipulations. Some cover a defined time period and require that recent graduates work for public interest legal organizations, while other programs are more open-ended and carry no pro bono component. And in some cases, law firms have rescinded offers to deferred associates, making these early career sabbaticals permanent.

Kane had the option of joining Kelley Drye in January, four months after the traditional start date, or taking a whole year off to work for a public interest organization. (The firm agreed to subsidize Kane's and other starting associates' deferral period with a stipend. Kane declined to provide the actual dollar figure of his stipend.)

"I was disappointed initially and worried about my career," says Kane, who began his one-year stint as a community development fellow at Public Counsel in September, "but later I reflected on it, and this is a great opportunity that has fallen in my lap."

The job, posted on a web site of public interest legal jobs, might offer the chance to not only further develop legal skills, but also to focus on specific issues faced by nonprofits, small businesses, and low-income individuals that didn't ordinarily arise in corporate law, Kane says. After several rounds of telephone interviews, he was offered the position. He is one of two deferred large-firm associates currently working at Public Counsel.

"We designed positions specifically for deferred associates," says Elizabeth Bluestein, the organization's general counsel. "We know they will only be here a year, so we are quickly getting them involved in intake and legal research."

For Kane, though, the year in California isn't just about legal research and related tasks. "I have no connection to Los Angeles, which is part of the reason why I ended up here," he says. "This offered me a great opportunity to live in another part of the country." And, the New York native adds, "I'm looking forward to being able to hit the beach in winter."

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