October 19th, 2011 by Gwynne Monahan
There has been a noticeable shift in discussion around law schools, from graduating with heavy student debt and no job prospects to what law schools prepare graduates to do. It’s hard not to conjure up the quote from the movie, My Cousin Vinny:
“They teach you contracts, precedents. Then the firm that hires ya, they teach ya the procedure. Or, you could go to court and watch.”
Contracts. Precedents. Law schools have traditionally taught the law with the expectation that hiring firms will teach the graduate how to be a lawyer. There was little public grumbling about the pattern pre-recession. It worked, and there was no reason it shouldn’t continue to work. But as many sought refuge from the recession in law school, and other graduate programs, they emerged to find the pattern, the method, broken.
In July, The Wall Street Journal pointed out the broken pattern when it wrote about how some law schools are getting practical by shifting course emphasis “from textbooks to skill sets.” It quoted Larry Kramer, law dean at Stanford: “law firms are saying, ‘You’re sending us people who are not in a position to do anything useful for clients.’” The recession forced corporations to reconsider what they pay for legal services, helping fuel the push towards flat fee or alternative billing. The trickle down effect caused a re-evaluation first of the cost of training new law graduates, and now, a re-examination of legal education itself.
In September, The Economist stated it more bluntly in its article, “Not Enough Lawyers:”
“Today students pay thousands of dollars to study for their bar exams, even after they have finished law school. But even after they pass, the bosses of legal firms note that new hires still need to be taught nearly everything about actual practice on the job.”
At first glance, the statement seems accurate. It is based on the assumption, however, that law school graduates have jobs in hand at law firms. And as the students that entered law school to avoid the recession graduate into a still dismal job market, many find themselves not only unequipped to practice law with little or no prospects of “on the job training,” but also unequipped to start their own practices.
That is changing, however, as law schools take a page from the tech startup culture and establish solo and small law firm incubators.
Perhaps foreseeing the future, in 2007 the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law established its incubator program as part of its Community Legal Resource Network. The program lasts 18 months, and is designed to train CLRN members in:
basic business issues such as billing, record-keeping, technology, bookkeeping and taxes while, at the same time, facilitating Incubator participants’ involvement in larger justice initiatives and in subject-based training in immigration law, labor and employment and other topics that will arise continually as these attorneys build their practices.
Billing. Technology. Bookkeeing. Taxes. All things the solo and small firm lawyer, now a business owner, must become intimately familiar, along with the actual practice of law. A solo or small law firm, after all, is a business as much as it is a law practice. Not understanding what business entity to setup, taxes and other parts of starting and running a business can cause headaches down the road. The CUNY School of Law incubator helps with the business side of a law practice while also giving the kind of “on the job training” previously seen as the responsibility of the hiring firm.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, and the University of Maryland School of Law have instituted similar solo and small firm incubator programs. Like CUNY, both aim to help graduates develop successful solo and small firm practices. Participants work on mostly public interest cases out of offices near campus. UMKC lists an office assistant, and experienced attorneys that may also include retired judges to act as mentors in its description.
In other words, the incubators are functioning much like tech startup incubators, nurturing and developing the skills necessary to bring an idea or product to market. In this case, the law school incubators are nurturing and developing legal and business skills so that, at the end, graduates will have the foundation for successful solo and small law firm careers.
In September, the National Law Journal highlighted similar programs in development at law schools across the country:
The Charlotte School of Law plans to have its Small Practice Center up and running next summer. Faculty and administrators at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Georgia State University College of Law and the University of Dayton School of Law are among those considering adding similar programs.
While the recession forced many law firms to take a hard look at how they deliver legal services, and many consumers to question hourly billing methods, so, too, has the recession forced a re-examination of law school education. And law schools are responding to the change, recognizing that many of their graduates may opt for a solo or small law firm career, and are thus developing programs to help get those solo and small law firms off the ground.
While it is too early to tell, law school incubators, having pulled a page from tech startup culture, may provide guidance for The Law School Firm, and “help bridge the gap between law schools and the practice of law.”