New Jersey Uses Pool Of Volunteer Attorneys

It's not easy to get your first job out of law school these days. It's a sad situation that's working to the advantage of New Jersey. The state can't afford to hire all the lawyers it needs in government, so it's tapping the pool of unemployed attorneys to get some of its legal work done for free.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. A 10 percent unemployment rate means a lot of people who never dreamed they would be to of work are job hunting. And in New Jersey, the attorney general's office is recruiting dozens of jobless lawyers to do the state's legal work as volunteers. Eugene Sonn reports.

EUGENE SONN: Even before the recession hit, the state of New Jersey's finances were in such bad shape that Attorney General Anne Milgram wasn't allowed to hire new lawyers when someone left.

Ms. ANNE MILGRAM (New Jersey Attorney General): We're down about 150 lawyers right now from where we started in the division of law. We started at 612. We're now at about 471.

SONN: With the hiring freeze expected to last indefinitely and lots of lawyers looking for work, Milgram dreamed up the volunteer program. More than 100 people applied and more than 60 have been placed. They do research, take depositions, and sometimes appear in court, but usually as the second chair attorney.

Milgram says in the debt recovery unit a volunteer is making the state money.

Ms. MILGRAM: We've got three lawyers there full time. We bring in $20 million a year for the state. Having folks do volunteer work for that will just add to our ability to bring in more money for the state.

SONN: As for the volunteers, they have to commit at least 20 hours a week for three months. Bob Willoughby drives two hours each way to volunteer, while still working full time as a chicken commodities trader. Oh, and he has an eight-month-old at home. He gets lots of the chicken work done while commuting and says the juggling is worth it.

Mr. BOB WILLOUGHBY (Attorney): There's not much sleep going on and an extra four hours on the road make it a little tough. But from the experience side of it, I think I'll definitely be here past three months.

SONN: Willoughby is typical of the volunteers. Most have not landed that first permanent legal job after passing the bar.

For Caroline Keith, taking the volunteer job meant moving back in with her parents while her husband finishes a job in Michigan. Keith says she hasn't had any luck job hunting in New Jersey yet. She hopes to practice environmental law. For ethical reasons, her boss at the attorney general's office doesn't give her cases where she'll be up against the firm she's applying to for jobs.

Ms. CAROLINE KEITH (Attorney): We're always keeping an eye on that kind of issue and making sure that it won't limit me too much in my future job search.

SONN: Concerns over conflicts of interest meant it took longer to vet volunteers to work in the criminal division of the attorney general's office. The most sensitive areas, such as the corruption unit, won't be taking volunteers, but most others will.

Ray Solomon, dean of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, says he's not surprised there's been so much interest in the volunteer program. In other recessions, the public sector has been a bit of a safe haven when private firms weren't hiring. Solomon says that's not the case anymore.

Professor RAY SOLOMON (Rutgers Law School): We had a number of students who graduated who had been hired to go over to the Philadelphia D.A.'s office and those jobs were just eliminated.

SONN: And since law school enrollments are up during the recession, Solomon says there will be plenty of newly minted lawyers looking to volunteer for at least a few years.

For NPR News, I'm Eugene Sonn.

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