Law school incubators and training firms: Reviving the apprenticeship model in the legal profession
October 2nd, 2012 by Briana Cummings
During my last year of law school I learned about tech start-up incubators like Y Combinator – which provides seed money, guidance, and networking opportunities to new start-ups – from my friends in Silicon Valley, and I was intrigued about the potential for using this model to help lawyers who wanted to create their own “start-up” law practice. In late August, I learned about the existence of law school incubators (the first of which was created only two years after Y Combinator) and booked a flight to see one of these incubators in person: the Access to Justice Initiative, affiliated with California Western School of Law. (For background on law school incubators, including the Access to Justice Initiative, see my recent post here.)
In the upscale office space that houses the Access to Justice Initiative, looking out over a gorgeous floor-to-ceiling view of airplanes flying low over the city and onto the tarmac of the ocean-side San Diego International Airport, I met with Access to Justice Initiative’s founder, Bob Seibel, and professors from the law schools at Thomas Jefferson and Arizona State. All three schools are at the vanguard of a movement to create new training models to prepare “practice ready” alums who want to open a small or solo practice or non-profit to serve communities locked out from traditional legal services.
Two of the law school programs we discussed – including the Access to Justice Initiative – follow an incubator model (providing support to recent graduates opening their own practices); one follows a training law firm model (aka “residency” model) (hiring recent graduates as associates to work under senior attorney supervision in a non-profit, community-oriented firm).
The problems in developing these experimental new programs are many. Among the challenges involved are:
- Liability issues (for the supervising attorneys/mentors
- Conflicts issues (for the supervising attorneys/mentors)
- Initial resistance from the local bar, which often views these kinds of training firms as competition
- Identifying appropriate legal matters to work on (not too complex for a novice attorney, but still pedagogically valuable)
- Structuring the relationship between “apprentice” attorneys and mentors – e.g., have the mentors bring in their own legal matters for the young associates to help work on, or have the mentors available only for supervision and guidance on the associates’ own cases
- Fund-raising issues, including
- Whether to target a particular interest group in order to attract grant money (which would require the ability to handle the great variety of legal issues any particular group may present)
- How to attract clients to bring their business to green, untested attorneys – if they are drawn with below-market fees, would the firm earn enough to cover operating expenses?
- Whether to attempt other fund-raising strategies such as selling “indulgences” to large firms to handle their pro bono docket, offering pre-paid legal services, or community legal training sessions.
Though daunting, these challenges were never treated during the discussion as a reason not to go forward. The sense of determined ingenuity I felt at the table derived in part from a belief that the only thing standing between underserved communities and the public-interest-minded law students who wanted – but felt unable – to help them was a lack of proper training opportunities. In all his years of teaching, Bob Seibel routinely asks his students during the last class session, “If I gave you $100,000 and paid off all your student loans, what would you do?” He said that each year 25-35% of students answered that they wanted to work in a community-based practice representing underserved constituencies. His wife, who worked for many years in the career services office of an Ivy League law school, fielded many calls from graduates several years into their big firm jobs who wanted to know how to break out and embark on a community-based career. The problem, the professors around the table told me — and this struck me as the big dirty secret of the law school career advisement system — was that several years working in a big firm or in a DA’s office gives one few transferable skills. On the contrary, working in these jobs makes it harder to open a community-based practice. As the professors explained, they prefer incubator applicants with no experience to those with experience in a big firm or government agency: not only have the latter not learned anything about the business of law, but they have also picked up too many bad practice habits that need to be unlearned.
The optimistic determination at the table was also rooted in a feeling that, in the current economic climate, growing numbers of newly minted law school graduates are going to hang out their shingles whether or not we give them the training they need. In this context, creating more structured apprenticeship models is as much a matter of protecting the public as anything else.