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Atlanta’s largest firms have pushed back the start dates for their first-year associates to January, which raises the question of possible secondment plans for first-years in the fall.  

The Georgia bar exam has been rescheduled for online Oct. 5-6, so first-year associates still have three months after taking it before they join their firms. Most firms still haven’t figured out their fall plans, but secondments to legal aid groups are one strong possibility. The last time that firms deferred first-year associates was during the financial crisis in 2009, when many placed associates with public interest law groups.

The Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s executive director, Steve Gottlieb, said that, so far, three first-year associates will be joining the organization this fall from Greenberg Traurig and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. He’s also in discussions with other firms.

Atlanta’s largest firms are deferring first-years to January, including Alston & Bird, Eversheds Sutherland, Kilpatrick, Morris, Manning & Martin and Troutman Pepper.

At least 15 other Am Law 200 firms in Atlanta have similarly deferred first-years to January, besides Greenberg. That includes Baker & Hostetler, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Dentons, DLA Piper, Holland & Knight and Seyfarth Shaw, according to online sources, including Above the Law. 

Atlanta Legal Aid’s first volunteer was Morgan McClure, an Atlanta native who just graduated from Georgetown Law and will join Greenberg Traurig in January. After taking the bar exam in October, McClure will spend three months working for Legal Aid’s Cobb County office.

“With everything going on with the pandemic, social justice issues and the racial climate, it is a great opportunity to take my law degree and help make a difference in someone’s life—especially since I know Legal Aid is going to be swamped with work, due to changes from COVID,” McClure said. 

McClure heard about the Legal Aid opportunity from her mother, Teri McClure, a longtime legal aid supporter, who was UPS’s general counsel and chief human resources officer until her recent retirement. 

The incoming first-year associate said she will handle whatever cases are most needed for Cobb Legal Aid, likely landlord-tenant disputes or hearings for temporary protective orders for domestic violence victims.

“It is such a good opportunity to get exposure on different areas of law,” McClure added. “I’m going into the corporate transactional practice at Greenberg Traurig, so I’m excited to get some litigation experience with Legal Aid and hopefully get the firm involved in more legal aid work.”

The Georgia Supreme Court in April issued an order allowing new law school graduates to gain provisional admission to the State Bar of Georgia before taking the bar exam.  

Gottlieb said that means the first-year associates can do substantive legal work for Legal Aid, such as representing clients in court.

When firms deferred their incoming associate classes to January in 2009, Legal Aid hosted five first-years that fall, Gottlieb said. He hopes to recruit more this year, since the need for legal aid has intensified due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When courts start opening, Gottlieb expects an onslaught of cases that are currently stayed, such as dispossessory actions. There is also an ongoing need to represent clients in unemployment hearings and those for temporary protective orders. “Having them could really help us out,” he said. 

Handling preliminary case screenings is another option. “It’s wonderful for the program and they make wonderful ambassadors [to their firms],” Gottlieb said.

Alston & Bird’s director of pro bono and community service, Cheryl Naja, said the firm is considering several fall secondment options for first-years, including Atlanta Legal Aid and other legal aid organizations.

But it’s too early to say what Alston’s fall plans for first-years will be. “We haven’t made a decision on how we’re going to proceed yet,” Naja said. “We’re still working with our summer associate program, and then we’ll move forward to the next issue.”

This story has been updated to reflect that King & Spalding has not yet set a firmwide start date for first-year associates.