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Attorneys Deferred by Recession Find Their Calling in a Related Field

September 17, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Staff
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Jenny Perkins

This was not how Jenny Perkins envisioned life after law school.

After years of college -- including earning undergraduate degrees in history and Spanish at Washington University in St. Louis, and getting her law degree at the University of Florida -- Perkins was set to begin her career this fall as a first-year associate at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP, one of Philadelphia's most historic and prominent law firms.

But in March, the law firm informed their first-year hires -- about 20 of them in all -- that their positions were being deferred for a year as a result of the downturn. Perkins' job was secure, but she'd have to wait 12 months to actually start it.

In lieu of working at Ballard, the 26-year-old recently began a year-long position with HIAS and Council Migration, Philadelphia's branch of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

"Part of the deferral program was to work in some sort of public-interest legal program in Philly," explained Perkins, adding that she had set up an interview with HIAS even before she spoke with the firm about her options.

She added that, having been in law school and aware of the economic climate's effect on many firms, "I knew that something like this was probably going to happen."

Ballard Spahr is one of many law firms around the country putting off starting their new hires.

For participating in the "externship program," as it's called, Ballard Spahr pays Perkins a percentage of her salary as a stipend, and she keeps her benefits.

Perkins said that she and the others at Ballard were told that next fall, they would assume their positions with the firm as second-year associates.

Perkins' family, originally from Rydal, moved to Florida when she was in middle school, though she still has relatives in the area. She now lives in Center City.

This is the first time HIAS has ever hosted a deferred hire, according to managing attorney Philippe Weisz. But, he said: "I think this is the first time that there's been this trend by law firms to do something like this."

Assisting Those Who Need It

While at HIAS, Perkins will work with immigrants with special status as part of the Violence Against Women Act, as well as help victims of enumerated crimes -- such as violence and abuse -- apply for visas. Many of those she's working with are native Spanish speakers, and Perkins is fluent in the language -- one of the many reasons the group was interested in having her come aboard, noted Weisz.

He also said that, while Perkins came to HIAS because of the economy, most of her clients did not: "Victims of domestic violence are generally in sensitive situations regardless of the economic climate, so the need has always been greater than the services we've been able to provide."

Perkins observed that her work at HIAS is a little different than what she would've done in her initial year at Ballard: Rather than writing memos and such, she's meeting with clients and assisting them in applying for visas; she's already been to immigration court and served as a translator -- and that's all in the first few weeks.

And she isn't alone in her situation there; HIAS also recently took on Pooja Agarwal, 29, a second-year associate out of the New York offices of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, a firm also facing a drop in business.

Like Perkins, Agarwal receives a fraction of her salary from her firm, and is slated to spend a year at HIAS, where much of her work involves immigration issues concerning juveniles.

Originally from North Carolina, Agarwal moved to New York to attend Columbia University and Brooklyn Law School. Though she joined Mintz Levin to pursue corporate law, the dearth of billable hours led her to do pro-bono immigration work, making her an easy fit for HIAS.

"I'm surprised by the sheer amount of cases that we have, without even doing much outreach into the community," she said.

Work Proves Rewarding

While these days, the organization often aids more non-Jews than it does Jews, Perkins, who is Jewish, spoke of the relation between the turn-of-the-20th-century immigrant experience and the importance of helping others in similar straits in contemporary times.

"When you have the education and the tools to help others," she proclaimed, there's no reason not to.

"It's enriching," said Perkins, adding that, "at the end of the day, I'm saving lives."

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