'Shorthanded' NYC agencies to borrow lawyers from major law firms

Lawyers walk with their briefcases towards the federal court house in San Diego, California
Lawyers walk with their briefcases towards a federal court house. REUTERS/Mike Blake

(Reuters) - As New York City's government contends with what it calls a critical shortage of lawyers, some of Manhattan's biggest law firms are lending out their own associates for temporary positions.

Mayor Eric Adams said Wednesday that junior lawyers from eight law firms, including Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Shearman & Sterling, will spend a year working in the legal departments of nine city agencies.

"The city has never needed lawyers more than it does today," Adams' chief counsel Brendan McGuire said at a press conference. "There are currently hundreds of lawyer positions vacant, and the city's lawyers at the law department and within its agencies do incredible work every day even though they are shorthanded," he said.

A City Hall spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the number of vacancies or additional details about the program.

The law firms will employ and pay the lawyer fellows, who will "in all other respects" be city employees, the mayor's office said in a statement.

Large law firms hired lawyers at record rates last year, according to industry reports, but many have since faced slackened demand for their services.

The list of law firms participating in the city's program also includes Willkie Farr & Gallagher, King & Spalding, Kirkland & Ellis, O'Melveny & Myers and Ropes & Gray.

Randy Mastro, a former New York City deputy mayor who is now a partner at King & Spalding, said in an interview that the city asked for a commitment from the firms of at least one associate for the one-year position.

Details of participation are still being worked out at the firm, in part dependent on the associates who express interest, he said.

Lawyers from several of the other participating firms didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mayor Adams noted challenges in navigating issues including the pandemic and influxes of migrants and asylum seekers. "Our lawyers have been stretched thin making sure that they can keep up with the pace of the legal challenges that we were facing," he said at the press conference.

He said the city is pushing to recruit full-time attorneys, but first "we need to deal with the immediate crisis that's in front of us, and that is how this administration functions."

Adams said the initiative, named the New York City Legal Fellows Program, will benefit both the city and the lawyers who will gain public service experience.

The Civil Service Bar Association, a union that represents lawyers employed by New York City in about 40 agencies, has seen about a 22% drop in membership since the start of the pandemic, according to its president, Saul Fishman.

In an interview, he said there is a "very real shortage" of lawyers, citing a lack of flexibility to work remotely among barriers to recruitment and retention.

Fishman described the new fellowship program as a "tiny band-aid" in place of a broader program to address such issues.

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Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com