A New York Times article published last month told the story of Nathan Richardson, a University of Chicago Law School graduate who secured a coveted job offer at the LA-based firm of Latham & Watkins, P.C. When the economy went south, Latham & Watkins, like many large firms, offered newly-minted attorneys a stipend of tens of thousands of dollars, usually about half of their first-year salary (a first-year salary would likely range from $100,000 to $150,000) to not come in to work. That's right, these lawyers were paid for the year to do nothing.
But as ambitious young attorneys, most of them decided to do something anyway. Many, like Richardson, went to work at public interest law firms, and the lucky ones were even able to work pro bono thanks to the stipend they received from the deferring firm. As you can imagine, this was great news for the not-for-profits and the public interest firms, who were now getting top-notch students who were used to working hard and ambitious to make an impression. That extra manpower certainly helped to clear many a backlogged file cabinet.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a rule late last year allowing limited privileges for attorneys who were not licensed to practice in Georgia and were willing to volunteer their time. The non-licensed attorneys could work for a non-profit or one of a number of government agencies or offices, and their work had to be signed off on by a licensed attorney working for that organization. This rule allowed deferred associates or attorneys looking to try out a new career path to get real, hands-on experience, while also providing extra manpower to help out cases which were building up, often due to hiring freezes instituted by the government or governing board.
These circumstances come together to improve the situation for public interest law firms and not for profits - ambitious new lawyers, or lawyers seeking to reinvigorate their passion, are flooding the market - often for free or cheap.
Not quite everything is coming up roses though. Time Magazine article states that the average law student who graduated in 2009 was burdened with $73,000 in debt. [Repayment terms vary, of course, but those loans would probably require a monthly payment of something on the order of $1,000 to $1,500.] The Time article quotes Larry Kramer, dean of Stanford Law School, who laments the lack of a suitable loan forgiveness or similar program to help students who could not only not afford to work pro bono, but also those who are having trouble making loan payments even if they are receiving a small salary from their interim employer.