Law schools are increasingly recognizing the need for expanded hands-on, post-graduate training for new lawyers, much like rotations and fellowships for freshly minted MDs. They also realize there is no shortage of those who, like Rivera’s tenants, would have difficulty affording market-rate representation. Through individualized “incubator” programs the CLRN and similar efforts set up more like traditional law firms, law schools are addressing both problems.
New solos aren’t just learning to be lawyers on their own; they must learn all the aspects of owning and running a business. “When you’re hit with the reality of trying to figure out how to develop your skills professionally, and, as a small business owner, it’s extremely difficult,” said Fred Rooney, a 1986 CUNY alum who started his own practice right out of law school and launched the CLRN. “Prior to 1998, there was nothing to support graduates other than [continuing legal education during] alumni weekend.”
Rivera, who started his own practice focusing on landlord-tenant cases with some immigration work, can’t say how successful he would be without the CLRN. “I wouldn’t be as knowledgeable in the management of the practice,” he said. “You have mentors that are accessible, that guide you by the hand in terms of, this is what you need to do to have a successful practice, to set up billing, to set up a court calendar where you know what cases are on, what deadlines you need to meet.”
The CLRN is the first of what has become a rapidly growing number of similar efforts at law schools around the nation that address apprenticeships for recent graduates and unmet “low bono” legal services for those of limited means but who aren’t quite poor enough to qualify for traditional legal services.
Rooney, who recently left CUNY to launch a similar “incubator” effort at Touro Law School on Long Island, is among many who liken these post-graduate efforts to those provided to beginning doctors. “You can get out of law school, and if you’re able to pass the bar, you can practice law,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have any idea what you’re doing.”
The noticeably more difficult economic climate for beginning lawyers since the 2007–09 recession has ramped up interest at law schools in starting similar efforts—and, said Rooney, their ethical and moral impetus to do so given mounting student debt. “There’s a responsibility to do more than just confer a degree,” he said. “Law schools are realizing that, and students are demanding that.”
Such efforts typically focus on practice areas like landlord-tenant, immigration, family law, consumer, and criminal law that often involve pro se parties. Rooney suggests thinking about where the community’s unmet legal needs lie and going from there.
For many law students, their study group help them get through law school. Private practice is no different. “The most valuable component of the incubator experience is the camaraderie,” he said. “You may not know how to handle an uncontested divorce, but if you’re part of a network of people who do know that, you can either refer cases, or you can collaborate on cases. You really learn, the old-fashioned way, through an apprenticeship or mentoring process.”
The CUNY model works as an incubator. It provides office space and mentorship but leaves attorneys to ultimately service their own individual clients. Other schools have set up formal training programs closer to a law firm model, in the sense that they amount to collective efforts to represent clients and place participating law graduates on a payroll.
“Lawyers working under the auspices of an incubator are already incorporated with their own legal practices under the classic entrepreneurship model—eat what they kill,” said Jennifer Friedman, executive director of the Pace Community Law Practice at Pace University School of Law. “We are paying our fellows. They work for us. They’re not working for themselves.”
Located in Westchester County north of New York City, Pace supports graduates focused on public interest law, who have difficulty getting hired and trained right out of school, while recognizing that “there is a huge need for legal representation in Westchester at a low cost,” Friedman said.
“That’s a niche we’re filling by matching the needs of our recent graduates with the needs of our community,” she added. During the program’s first year, “It’s been fascinating to observe the process of recent law graduate to practice lawyer, striking a balance between supervision and independence.”
Craig Relles, a 2012 Pace graduate, liked the fellowship experience so much that he’s returning for a second year in more of an incubator set-up. A franchisee of Domino’s Pizza for nearly a decade before entering law school, Relles has appreciated the structured, supervised setting, within which he’s handled immigration, family law, special education, and other types of cases.
“We’ve been able to do the kinds of things that a first-year associate would do in a law firm,” he said. “The second year, I’m going to open my own law office; I’m essentially going to hang a shingle, and still use the office space of the Pace Community Law Practice, and the support systems and the mentoring. The difference is that I will be autonomous and have my own office.”
The University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law has given its blessing to a firm called the University Law Group, which is operating as a two-year pilot project for Utah graduates under the tutelage of Dennis Gladwell, a veteran practitioner. Launched in November 2011, the firm consists of him and three to four beginning attorneys at any one time; a total of 10 have passed through its doors to date.
Working from decentralized sites, the new graduates who work for the University Law Group (ULG) handle family law, landlord-tenant, small litigation, and other types of matters. Gladwell said they appreciate the mentoring they gain through the ULG. “They’re sitting at home, and [mentoring] is what this program is designed to do,” he said. “They don’t know how to practice law. They don’t have any clients.”
A registered nurse in addition to being an attorney, Gladwell recalled that in the first week of nursing school, a student might have to find the pulse of a nursing home resident; six months later, they’re working in a hospital. “Law schools don’t run quite like that,” he said. “The kids are coming out and, unless they have an opportunity to go right into a firm, they’re stuck. They don’t know what to do or how to do it. They’re thrilled and grateful to have someone to call.”
The Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego is another that’s attempted the incubator model with its Center for Solo Practitioners, which opened in November 2012. The center has nine attorneys, all graduates of Thomas Jefferson in the past six years, who handle business, family law, immigration, criminal, personal injury, employment law, consumer matters, and wills and trusts, said Lilys McCoy, center director.
The Thomas Jefferson alums receive office space, WiFi, and other office amenities from the Family Justice Center Alliance, a nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence. In lieu of paying rent, each alum must provide 50 hours per year of pro bono service for the agency and its clients.
“I have an office there as well,” McCoy added. “I make myself available to answer questions about best practices for law practice management, or client relations.” She also matches the recent grads with mentors in the San Diego legal community.
At California Western School of Law, also in San Diego, the Access to Law Initiative started in June 2012 with eight attorneys, most of them a year or two out of school; it now has 15, said director Bob Seibel. They stay for about 18 months, and all but two have been solo practitioners.
“It’s a mix, but a lot of it is ‘low bono,’” he said. “We have connections to a lot of organizations that refer pro bono cases, but they also have to turn away people who have the ability to pay low fees. They’ve been good about referring cases to our people.”
Numerous other schools have such efforts in the works, in a variety of different configurations. One of the more ambitious will be at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, which, by January 2014, hopes to open a firm with 30 to 40 attorneys, including five to seven full-time, experienced attorneys who will serve as managing partners, said law school dean Douglas J. Sylvester. He sees the effort being modeled on a teaching hospital, serving those who have money to spend on legal services but not enough to afford typical hourly rates.
“There is a place for legal skills in business and personal life, and it isn’t the end of your financial well-being to go out and seek that,” Sylvester said, in expressing his hopes for the effort. “The dream of this law firm is that when we take a client, it’s not because they can’t afford to pay, it’s because they’re doing something and it’s time for this group of associates to learn that particular skill.”
Rutgers University School of Law—Newark is constructing a post-graduate fellowship that will provide academic credit in addition to supervision for hands-on legal work, said Andrew Rothman, associate dean of student affairs. “More than anything it will have the feel of—for lack for a better term—legal rounds, the way medical rounds are done,” he said. Each day will start with seminars discussing cases, and “the balance of the day will be spent providing actual legal services, under my supervision.”
The plan is to accept six participants per supervising attorney, which means a total of six to start, and Rutgers will serve the same sort of clients as other programs. Rothman cites a statistic that 99 percent of landlord-tenant cases are represented pro se and said, “It’s killing the bench because pro se litigation is incredibly time-consuming. Landlord-tenant matters are a wonderful way for new lawyers to be introduced to appearing in court.”
The University of California Hastings College of the Law is starting a pilot program this fall to place third-year students into public legal offices in nearby Contra Costa County, where they will be trained and then, during their first year out of law school, employed for small salaries. Hastings hopes this two-year fellowship program, called Lawyers for America—the name is a conscious echo of Teach for America, which places aspiring teachers in harder-to-staff schools—spreads to other schools, said Marsha Cohen, a professor emeritus and founding executive director.
“This is open to everybody,” she said. “We think it’s a national idea. We think it’s something that would benefit from being on many campuses. We are being incubated by Hastings, but my deans saw this was something they should not keep for themselves. It’s a significant step in creating a subset of graduating lawyers who have a significant amount of experience at an increasing level of complexity.”
Brooklyn Law School will launch its own Lawyers for America program in fall 2014, in partnership with Hastings, said professor Stacy Caplow. According to Caplow, they hope to both get students’ careers started and increase capacity in the public interest law sector. “The job market on all levels is more difficult to enter,” she said. “This gives graduates a great springboard.”
The biggest challenge is setting up law school apprenticeship programs is convincing already cash-strapped administrators that they can be economically viable and self-sustainable, said Rooney, who in addition to heading up the new Touro Law School incubator is also directing Touro’s new International Justice Center for Post-Graduate Development, which will encourage similar efforts.
“You’ve got to be able to sell that to administrators looking at reduced revenues,” he said. “Each of the law schools has developed its own strategy, its own criteria. It’s been extremely exciting to watch the growth of incubators and other post-graduate programs.” n