Would You Hire An Unemployed Lawyer As A Volunteer?

From Newsday, I learned that the Nassau County Attorney’s office hopes help out in this economic downturn by opening its doors to bring on several volunteer lawyers who haven’t been able to find other employment.  Positions range from working with the county’s Home Ownership Center to advise in mortgage default situations to defending the county in litigation and appellate matters.  Already, an advertisement in the New York Law Journal has drawn 50 applicants, 80 percent of whom are currently unemployed.

I realize that on the surface, the prospect of free labor sounds eminently attractive.  Indeed, for a few weeks now, I’ve been considering hiring volunteer lawyers to help out with my trade association but I’ve been too busy to organize the kind of structured program that would make their time worth my while.  As for my own practice, again, I’d love to bring a volunteer on board, but for the bulk of my present work, the learning curve is just to steep to make this kind of arrangement feasible.  I’d love to take on a few pro bono matters and supervise a volunteer, but finding the work also takes time.

In addition, I’m just not a fan of free labor.  I’ve had one or two free volunteers at my practice over the past 15 years, but mostly, I’ve paid even though when I started out, it usually meant a $10/hr salary, with the intern or clerk receiving payment before I did.  In at least one case, I found the free employee unreliable and not really very motivated, but because I wasn’t paying her, I didn’t feel that I could crack down on her as much as I would have if she’d been paid.  And assuming that  a diligent volunteer were working for me, I’d feel as if I were taking advantage even if I were teaching him or her the tricks of the trade.

I know that Seth Godin has a free internship program but that’s a little different. After all, I’m sure that most of us would make time to work free for a Supreme Court justice for a couple of months if given the chance.  But I’m not so sure that the training and contacts that I – or most of my colleagues – could provide are a fair trade for three or six months of work that we might ultimately bill to paying clients (which is another issue – is it fair to hire a volunteer and collect cash for their work?)

So let me know what you think.  If you’re unemployed or looking for a career transition, would you volunteer to work for a lawyer or non-profit and what would make it worth your while.  And if you’re a solo, have you hired volunteer lawyers (students getting school credit don’t count) and how did it work out?  Or would you use a volunteer at all and why or why not?


  1. Jason Goodwin on March 30, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Just a couple quick thoughts.
    First, you mention the learning curve is too steep. I know you that you’ve had clerks in the past, but are there sources of info that you have turned to in the to help you get up to speed on issues? If so, might they help get them going? No doubt some people think they (or we) need hand holding, but I suspect most can rise to the challenge and figure things out. Perhaps developing that resource could be a good project for a volunteer.
    Second, re: pro bono matters which you don’t have the time to look for — why not have a volunteer seek out the pro bono projects (with your guidance on criteria for accepting cases)?
    As for the benefits to a volunteer, I would think a solid recommendation and demonstrable substantive experience (whether memos, client contact, biz dev, practice mgmt, etc.) would be well worth the time. But I can only speak for myself.

  2. brian tannebaum on March 30, 2009 at 11:54 am

    As a lawyer, I’ve hired law students for projects and paid them. In this economy, while I would accept offers of free work on projects, I would probably not feel comfortable accepting it for free. I think it is a good move for a displaced lawyer to offer free services. If they do a good job, they may wind up with a job, or a referral to someone hiring.

  3. doug reiser on March 30, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    We have used volunteer labor in the past to great success. Clerks who volunteered labor worked hard and gained full-time employment with our firm.
    I agree with Brian that there is some moral concerns to taking on free labor in this climate. But, it is certainly advantageous for all involved – both the firms having difficulty paying bills, and the students/clerks who need to find experience in a tight employment field.

  4. Scott on March 30, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    In this economy, this is the only type of job available for some law students, even at top schools. I would definitely encourage solos and other attorneys to take on volunteers. It allows many of us to do something, much better than sitting at home.

  5. Craig on March 31, 2009 at 12:40 am

    I am transitioning to patent law and perhaps bankruptcy from general practice after going back to school to obtain the necessary science credits. Patent law requires some degree of experience. I want to work as a solo. Therefore, I would accept volunteering to gain training for a specialty, but not the practice areas described in the ad. I also would place a time cap on the training period.

  6. Lisa Perry on April 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    I agree with the above. I would be happy to work on a volunteer or low pay basis for a while to learn the ropes.
    After 8 years of grad school and professing for 6 years (in a transferable skill area–communication) I am now getting back into the practice of law. I have done document review for 3 years, which teaches a lot about discovery, evidence, and various subject areas, however I have little experience in the actual practice of law.
    California, where I live now, has a limit on the amount of time someone can have an “intern” (unpaid help) that is not a student. Having that artificial endpoint can be helpful.

  7. Rob Shattuck on June 19, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Unemployed lawyers should consider applying to BP Fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg for a job. Total attorneys' fees to be paid from fund could be upwards of $5 billion. Make the argument to Mr. Feinberg that those could be greatly reduced, maybe by 80%, if he structured the program so that all legal work was done by lawyers who are compensated on a salary basis.

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