The firm will lower some of its first years' salaries and place less of an emphasis on billable hours. Instead, the firsties will "spend only one-third of their time in their first year on billable client work. The rest will be spent on pro bono work and training programs," according to the JD Journal.
Of course, there's a concomitant drop in salary, as well. The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog reports that "associates starting in September will make $125,000 (comprised of a $25k up-front bonus, and a $100,000 salary). Second-years will make $150,000 (comprised of a $125,000 salary and a $25,000 bonus at the completion of the project)."
Enrollment in the program is limited, however, but I imagine that there will be a natural breakdown among associates of those who want to earn a full first year's salary and subject themselves to the grind of a full billable hours requirement and those who will take less money for more mentorship and fewer hours.
Although, from my perspective, I would much rather take the second option, so maybe the breakdown won't occur so naturally after all.
This tactic can be an excellent way for small firms to expand their roster of attorneys as well. Small firms might want to take on more attorneys right now in order to get more business flowing, but simply can't make multitudinous new hires because of financial pressures.
Tearing a page from the Howrey playbook, small firms could offer attorneys a way to ease into the firm, possibly through contract work. Firms could even extend offers to pro bono organizations that would allow attorneys to use the firm's offices and consult with attorneys on pro bono projects. (It could be a great way to satisfy some of those required pro bono hours while doing some business networking, too.)
The main point is that in tough times, firms have to get creative if they are going to recruit and retain talented attorneys. Howrey has a history of doing things differently than the rest of BigLaw, and this new program sounds like it could be an attractive alternative to deferrals or low-pay public interest work that many of the other firms are offering to their incoming first years.
Adopting similar tactics could increase your firm's allure as well.