The “pro bono year” is to Biglaw what a “study abroad program” is to most American universities: a time for reflection, exposure to new things, and a more relaxed pace.

It was a necessity born of the recession. Firms did not have enough work to go around; they didn’t want to lose perfectly good employees, but they also did not want to pay them six figures to sit in their offices, twiddling their thumbs until the economy picked back up. So, instead, they offered five-figure stipends and the requirement, in some cases, that their lawyers go off and serve the public good.

This fall, many of those lawyers are heading back to their firms (though some liked being “abroad” in the public interest sector so much that they don’t plan to go back). Skadden is still trying to decide how much worth the pro bono year, or “Sidebar Plus” in Skadden parlance, brought to its associates, and thus how much to pay them upon their return.

It seems though that Skadden is unsure about the worth of Sidebar itself. Though the firm has not officially commented on it, we understand that it is discontinuing the Sidebar Plus program, apparently because work at the firm has picked up and it wants all of its associates back at the farm, plowing the billable hour fields.

What will become of the “pro bono year” for Biglaw? When we emerge from the recession, will it be left behind? Heading into the fall, some firms are still offering the year-away option to incoming associates, including generous stipends…

We’ve reported before that WilmerHale and Mayer Brown are offering the year-long deferral option with a $60K stipend. This week, Schulte Roth & Zabel gave out start dates to its incoming associates and also offered the year off, with a slightly sweeter package than that for MoFoers and Mayer Brownies. Says a tipster:

SRZ’s start dates were pretty good: Choice of October 11, November 8, or Dec 10, with a $10K advance. There’s also an option for a pro-bono stipend of $70K, no health care.

Last year, seven of SRZ’s approximately 50 incoming associates chose the pro-bono year. The firm was impressed with the experience those associates got. When they rejoin the firm in September, it will be as second-year associates, a firm spokesperson tells us.

Firms’ commitment to pro bono opportunities for their associates predates the recession, of course. They have historically brought in pro bono matters, and some offer pro bono rotations. At Covington & Burling, two attorneys and I spent six months at a legal services firm working on landlord-tenant, family and public assistance law for indigent clients. And the firm paid full salaries to the attorneys while they were on those rotations.

But what of the pro bono year with a reduced salary? Will that die when the American economy comes back to life? Let us know what your firm is doing, in the comments, or by email.


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