If things had gone according to plan, Lindsay Murphy would be a big-city tax lawyer by now. Instead, the recent law school graduate found herself doing legal aid, listening to complaints about raw sewage bubbling up into the bathtubs of a Mississippi Delta housing project.
Murphy is among hundreds of newly minted lawyers who've been forced by the recession to take a detour on their way to the nation's top firms, spending up to a year helping out nonprofits for as little as a third of the salary they'd expected.
From San Francisco to New York, high-powered firms are postponing the start dates of new hires they recruited before the economic meltdown. Many are paying the "deferred associates" stipends to spend a year doing public interest work until the business slowdown ends.
For cash-strapped nonprofits and government law offices, the free help is an unexpected silver lining. And the young lawyers and the firms that pay them say they are benefiting from valuable training and hands-on experience.
Murphy, 25, started her public interest fellowship at the University of Mississippi's Civil Legal Clinic in August. She has helped poor clients with housing and tax problems and traveled this month to the poverty-ridden Delta with other attorneys and law students to investigate one low-income neighborhood's sewer problems.
"This is what this profession is for — it's for helping people," said Murphy, who focused on corporate tax early in law school at Ole Miss. "I had lost sight of that."
Nobody has an exact count of how many law firm associates have been deployed to public interest law offices, but experts say it's likely in the high hundreds.
The list of firms paying such stipends include some of the biggest legal names.
Murphy, for example, is one of 59 public interest fellows from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, whose Dallas office she plans to join next year. Ropes & Gray is paying 51 incoming associates to do public interest work. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe has 45 participants. All are international firms with large offices around the country.
The economic downturn has meant less work for law firms, fewer experienced attorneys leaving jobs and thousands of lawyers laid off. From August 2008 to August 2009, total law office employment fell by nearly 26,000 jobs, a mere 2 percent but striking for an industry accustomed to constant growth.
While a few firms rescinded offers entirely, most have taken pains not to lose graduates they recruited and hosted as summer associates in 2008. They offered stipends for the deferral period, in many cases tying the stipends to public interest work at nonprofits or government law offices.
"We knew them well, we'd invested time in recruiting them and working with them over the summer," said Eric Kraeutler, firmwide hiring partner at Morgan Lewis.
Most deferred associates remain in big cities. A few, like Murphy, are spending the year away from the major legal centers. Two of the 30 public interest fellows from the firm Mayer Brown are working overseas — one in Brazil and the other in Namibia.
A reduced income can be a hardship for law school graduates who had been counting on bigger paychecks to pay off student loans. But many deferred associates say they're grateful to have a job.
Albinas Prizgintas is among 28 associates who elected a yearlong deferral from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. The firm is paying him $80,000 for work helping the unemployed and domestic abuse victims at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.
"It would seem almost absurd to be angry about $80,000 when every day you're dealing with clients who are hoping that any day that check comes in," said Prizgintas, 27. His salary is also far higher than the typical $40,000 starting wage for a legal aid attorney.
In exchange for reduced income, deferred associates get more experience in court and interacting with clients than they could get early on at big firms, said Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, which encourages public interest work by commercial law firms.
While big firms generally perform a certain amount of pro bono work each year to stay in good standing with their professional associations, the work of deferred associates doesn't count in most cases because associates are not yet employees of the firms, she said.
Not all nonprofits can accept free legal help. Some lack resources to train and supervise new lawyers or equip them with computers.
For those able to accept the assistance, it comes at a perfect time. The recession has heightened demand for legal services for the poor, while budget cuts and a slowdown in foundation grants and private giving have put pressure on many public interest offices to scale back their work.
At Legal Aid of D.C., a hiring freeze has left three of 26 attorney positions vacant. The organization has taken four deferred law firm associates for the year and two for shorter periods. They help with research and client interviews, freeing up staff attorneys to take on more cases, said Eric Angel, the group's legal director.
There are some concerns that law firm fellowships are making it harder for those intending to enter public interest law to land jobs. But the nonprofits insist deferred associates aren't taking anyone's place since they wouldn't have the money to hire anyway.
Public interest law offices can expect more free labor ahead. Many firms have announced plans to defer next year's crop of new attorneys too — and some hope sending recruits into the field before bringing them on board full-time will become a permanent feature of legal hiring.
The arrangements were "a creative response by the firms to what was a very ugly crisis," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has eight law firm fellows. "My wish going forward is that what you can do in good times."