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Deferred Associates Find Unexpected Opportunities in Federal Courts
“As you know, many law firms in Chicago and across the country have been hit by hard times,” Chief Judge James Holderman began in a January letter to his colleagues in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. As law firms tightened belts in the 2008-2010 economic downturn, the first casualties were often law school graduates whose start dates with law firms were deferred for at least one year. “Since the beginning of law firm deferrals early last fall,” Holderman wrote, “I have had post-graduate lawyers assist in my chambers in the unofficial (and unpaid) role of Volunteer Post-Graduate Judicial Intern, as have other judges.”
The matchup of unexpectedly unemployed law grads with busy courts has been beneficial to both.
“Local legal journals reported law firms that made offers in better times were deferring associates,” said U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs. “These associates are people right out of law school, all geared up to be lawyers. Backpacking for a year while they wait to join their law firms is not what they want to do. The ability of the federal courts to offer these new attorneys an opportunity meshed well with our need for help.” After checking to confirm that the Code of Conduct for United States Judges would allow federal judges to take on unpaid law clerks, Jacobs sent a memo to all Second Circuit judges encouraging use of this unexpected resource.
Several district and bankruptcy judges needed no further prodding. Bankruptcy judges, who have seen their caseloads rebound substantially since the passage of bankruptcy reform legislation in 2005, normally receive only one or two clerks. Bankruptcy Judge Alan Gropper in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, has two to three law interns as well. During the past year, he added two recent law school graduates who had been deferred by their firms for a six-month period.
“They performed research and drafting and attended court sessions. I gave them substantive projects to work on and, at their stage of education, they were more helpful and more knowledgeable about bankruptcy law than an intern would be. I think both of the deferred associates had good opportunities to learn, and that their experience was valuable to them when they started their new jobs,” said Gropper.
“This is a worthwhile experience for both sides,” said Second Circuit Executive Karen Milton. “The deferred associates get valuable experience in federal court—the kind they may not get in a law firm—and some congested courts get help they need.”
While working in the federal courts, the deferred associates cannot be paid by or receive benefits from their law firms. Any lump sum or bonus they receive from the firm to defer their starting date for employment has to be before or after their internship. They cannot attend firm events.
Judge Richard Berman, a district court judge in the Southern District of New York, generally takes law clerks after they have one to two years as associates in a law firm. Last year, he took two deferred associates, and will have three starting in September.
“At the end of the day, if you are willing to take the time to provide proper training and guidance, it gives them a good experience,” said Berman. “They work on actual cases. They work hard. And I think they’re thrilled to get the opportunity. In the beginning, we give them the simplest legal work we have, but they move up. They’re highly motivated. We do it to provide them an opportunity in a difficult legal climate. And a federal law clerkship is a fabulous credential.”
Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald (S.D. NY) didn’t hesitate to give challenging assignments to the deferred law associate who worked in her chambers.
“He was top of his class at a prestigious law school and someone who I would have considered as a law clerk, had he applied,” Buchwald said. “We involved him in every trial, and he did some very sophisticated work. It was a good experience for all.”
“The ability of the federal courts to offer these new attorneys an opportunity meshed well with our need for help.”
Judge Michael Telesca in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York had two deferred law associates spend a half year working in the court before they reported to their law firms.
“They were a windfall for the district,” Telesca said. “One associate concentrated on helping us with our backlog in habeas corpus cases. Both were very competent and provided great assistance to the court.”
His colleague on the court, Judge Richard Arcara, had a similar experience. The two deferred law associates who began working with Arcara in the fall of 2009 helped eliminate a backlog of Social Security cases and Section 2241 habeas petitions, while learning firsthand about the federal court system.
“I believe they benefited from the opportunity to observe court proceedings and to work one-on-one with a district judge,” said Arcara. “Overall my experience was very positive, and I was fortunate to have their assistance.”
In Chicago, the Social Security caseload has nearly doubled since the recession began, and the recent law school graduate working with Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan in the Northern District of Illinois has helped write several Social Security opinions, in addition to helping on a multi-day hearing and on four settlement conferences. “He’s been a tremendous help for chambers,” Nolan said, “and he’s gaining good experience. We give him real responsibility.”
The coming year again will see a number of deferred associates working in the federal courts, but their numbers likely will be reduced as law firms adjust to the economic climate. For the impact of even a temporary partnership of associates and courts, Chief Judge Jacobs may speak for judges throughout the Judiciary: “It was very satisfying to make this work, and offer opportunities where they were needed.”