May 29, 2024

(Reuters) – When Leah Hebron, who is about start her first year at Georgetown University Law Center, looks ahead, she said she figures “I have my whole life to work as a lawyer.”

So when she saw the chance to defer law school for a year, get paid $50,000 to work at Human Rights Watch and score a $10,000 scholarship to boot — all courtesy of Weil, Gotshal & Manges — she jumped at the chance.

The experience, she said, deepened her commitment to pursuing international, human rights and national security law after spending the past year at the non-profit.

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Hebron is part of the Weil Legal Innovators Programan unusual fellowship that targets students before they enter law school.

Since the program launched in 2019, the firm has paid for an average of 10 “Zero L” students a year to delay law school in order to work at select public service organizations – not as lawyers of course, but to take on substantive projects Though .

I admit, my first reaction was “Huh?”

To be sure, similar fellowships are not uncommon for new law school graduates. The Skadden Fellowship Foundation, for example, has been going strong for 34 years, with more than 900 alums. There’s also the Fried Frank Civil Rights Fellowship, the Hunton Andrews Kurth Pro Bono Fellowship, the Winston & Strawn Fellowship Program, and the Cohen Milstein Fellowship, to name a few.

The details vary, but the programs, unlike Weil’s, all involve firms paying for newly minted lawyers to work for a year or two at a nonprofit or in-house on pro bono matters. In some cases, the firms anticipate the lawyers will join as associates when the fellowships end, while others have no such expectations. At Skadden, for example, 90% of the fellows remain in public service, according to the firm.

The rationale behind those programs isn’t hard to grasp: train new lawyers, support pro bono and nonprofit legal work, get a halo effect in recruiting socially minded associates.

But why is Weil shelling out $1 million a year on a program for students before they even start law school?

In part, it seems, because no one else is doing it. Rather than be one more firm funding post-JD, do-good fellowships, Weil is raising its profile among students at top law schools before their legal careers even begin.

“We wanted to go in a lot deeper, to put the firm on the map,” for philanthropy and social impact, said Hedieh Fakhriyazdi, who manages 1,100-lawyer Weil’s social responsibility department and charitable foundation.

There “were a lot of (fellowship) opportunities post-graduate, but not before,” she said. Weil’s program “builds recognition and visibility” at the onset.

That said, it’s not a recruitment tool per se. Weil doesn’t expect program alums to join the firm – though Fakhriyazdi added, “Of course we would love it” if they did.

Rather, she frames the program as part of the firm’s commitment to being “a responsible corporate citizen” — helping the next generation of lawyers and “addressing some of the most pressing social and legal challenges in our communities today.”

The funding for the program is considered a charitable contribution and is part of the firm’s philanthropic giving.

Weil has partnered with 10 law schools, all top-ranked, which have agreed to allow incoming students to defer for a year to participate in the innovators program. (The program is not open to rising students at non-partner law schools.)

The firm has also teamed up with 13 well-known nonprofits, including the Innocence Project, Earthwatch Institute, the ACLU of Texas and the National Women’s Law Center, where program participants can opt to work.

Weil gives the nonprofits $50,000 to pay the participants’ salaries, plus another $40,000 to cover expenses like health insurance, with any leftover funds to be pocketed as a donation.

For Weil, which last year had revenue of $1.86 billion and average profits per equity partner of $5.18 million according to The American Lawyer, it’s a drop in the bucket – but the organizations are appreciative.

At the National Urban League, for example, Weil fellows have conducted legal and policy research, provided resources to people seeking legal assistance, helped revamp the league’s contract system and supervised college interns, said general counsel Danielle Cooper Daughtry in an email, calling them ” vital members of the team.”

Weil matches program participants with mentors across the firm. The firm also brings the rising law students to New York for an orientation and closing reception.

For Hebron, who is the first in her family “to tackle the mountain that is law school,” it was her introduction to the world of Big Law.

Going into the program, she said she knew nothing about private practice “beyond what you see in movies or read in books.” But she came away feeling like “I could see ending up at a law firm like Weil someday,” she said. “The mentorship from Weil helped me inform the type of lawyer I want to be.”

Likewise, Chace Pulley, who spent the past year at the Tahirih Justice Center and will start Columbia Law School after she completes one additional deferral year as a Fulbright Scholar in Latin America, said she “definitely learned Big Law can be a starting place for a lot of different careers, including careers in public service.”

Her experience at Tahirih “really confirmed my interest in working in direct services” for survivors of domestic violence, she said, though down the road, she added, she’d “love to make the leap to impact litigation.”

“The Weil program has been so helpful,” she said. “You get the perspective to learn about so many different paths.”

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