DeKalb gains free legal help through program

Law firms are still hiring first-year associates right out of law school, but the economy has intruded on that process as on so many others. First, most firms are hiring fewer new grads than before, and second, many firms put those graduates on hold as soon as they're hired. They don't start at the firm for several months or even a year, but while they wait, the firm pays them up to half their normal salary.

Enter the DeKalb district attorney. In a new program this year, the prosecutor's office has landed 14 newly minted attorneys on temporary loan from law firms in Atlanta, New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The lawyers get experience preparing and arguing motions or even trying cases; the district attorney's office gets to chip away at its case backlog; the law firms get a more seasoned attorney when he or she does start full-time.

"We get some very educated, very skilled, knowledgeable people and we get to teach them, but we get work out of them as well," said Don Geary, chief assistant district attorney in DeKalb. He said the 14 new lawyers would cost the county $1 million a year in salary and benefits if they were on the district attorney's staff.

With 1,400 lawyers, Morgan Lewis & Bockius of Philadelphia is among the 15 largest law firms in America. This year, the firm deferred all 60 of its incoming associates to October of next year, and it established a Web site for them that aggregated public service opportunities around the country, including the DeKalb County program.

"We feel very strongly that a law firm like ours should have a strategic and well-established philanthropic aspect and this is part of that," said Amanda Smith, pro bono partner at Morgan Lewis.

While on loan, the attorneys will conduct research for criminal cases, help with investigations and sit alongside prosecutors at trials, said Geary, who helped develop the program. It is the only one of its size and scope in the state, according to the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia.

The attorneys say the experience is invaluable.

"As a law firm associate, even coming in as second-, third- or fourth-year [lawyer], your exposure to trial experience is pretty limited," said Erica Williamson, who will be working next year at Alston & Bird. "I think it's beneficial when you're taking depositions, it's beneficial in just dealing with clients, learning to do an investigation, learning to do an interview. And this was a great way for me to do that."

The loaned attorneys potentially may end up going up against some of the same prosecutors when they begin working at their firms, but Geary and others said that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"It's not like we're giving them classified information that they can use against us," said Danny Porter, the Gwinnett County district attorney, whose office has used five associates on loan during the past 10 years. "The one thing it does, is it brings you more lawyers to review cases. It helps you work on your backlogs, and it brings you a certain type of expertise."

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