March 23, 2009

Recession Special: Pro Bono Opportunities

I just read an article published today on, the San Francisco Chronicle's online edition. It details a trend among laid-off workers to seek volunteer opportunities with nonprofits as part of their job search.

The article reminded me of a conversation I had over dinner last weekend with a friend who is in law school. She's strongly interested in public interest law, to the point that she's not considering taking a corporate job. Before law school, she worked with two nonprofits, one of which provided legal services to those unable to afford it, and she knows for sure that she wants to do this type of work as soon as she graduates from law school.

Over dinner, we talked about the recent trend among big law firms, in the face of the recession, to delay their new associates' start dates. Some of these firms are paying their new hires a partial salary to work in public interest law. According to
a post this past Friday on the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog:

"Morgan, Lewis, for instance, has delayed the start date for 68 incoming lawyers by one year, until the fall of 2010. But the firm will pay the lawyers up to $70,000 each if they take on such jobs as litigating at a public defender’s office or providing corporate-law advice to a nonprofit organization. Pillsbury Winthrop has extended a one-year offer to pay salary and benefits to each of 55 laid-off lawyers who takes on a public-interest job. Simpson Thacher has launched a similar program."

On face value, this seems like a great CSR move on the part of the law firms. Because of the business slow-down, companies have a lot of underutilized assets sitting around - in this case, that's employees, but in other industries it might include physical assets, too. According to the WSJ blog post, nonprofits are embracing the opportunity to receive this resource:"But for now, the public-interest world is loving it. 'It seemed like manna from heaven when law firms approached us about underwriting the costs of having [lawyers] work for us,' says Dinah PoKempner, general counsel of Human Rights Watch."

In talking to my friend, though, a big concern came up. She's worried that this move will create significantly more competition for public interest jobs, and that this will affect her job search. I'm worried about the sustainability factor if her concern is realized.

Let's say that incoming lawyers accept such paid "pro bono" opportunities in significant numbers. In year one, this could be terrific for nonprofits - they get access to a significantly larger talent pool, while law firms shoulder some or all of the burden of paying for it. In year two, though, those attorneys go back to their real jobs. Depending on the state of the economy, the nonprofits might get a new crop of untrained employees, or they might get no one.

Meanwhile, the students who were dedicated to public interest careers all along may have gotten boxed out of nonprofit jobs, because they didn't come with a nice $70,000 subsidy. But these are the lawyers who would have stayed with the nonprofits long-term, rather than taking their knowledge and training with them back to big firms, leaving the nonprofits to train a fresh batch of inexperienced new hires. This just doesn't seem very sustainable.

I absolutely commend businesses that recognize they have assets sitting idle and that work to deploy those resources in a way that serves the community. I think this kind of thinking is the source of a major growth opportunity for corporate community engagement. However, I think we need to give careful thought to how we can implement these programs in a way that is sustainable, that won't leave nonprofits in a lurch when the economy picks up and we can once again fully utilize these assets in our businesses.

Does anyone have thoughts or advice on how we can do this, or examples of companies that are doing it well? Thanks!

1 comment: