To Place Graduates, Law Schools Are Opening Firms
Bronner, Ethan, Honolulu Star - Advertiser
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Douglas J. Sylvester, dean of the law school at Arizona State University, was visiting the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota a couple of years ago, he mentioned the shifting job market for his students - far fewer offers and a new demand for graduates already able to draft documents and interact with clients.
The Mayo dean responded that his medical students and graduates gained clinical experience in hospital rounds closely supervised by attending physicians.
"I realized that was what we needed," Sylvester recalled, "a teaching hospital for law school graduates."
The result is a nonprofit law firm that Arizona State is setting up this summer for some of its graduates. Over the next few years, 30 graduates will work under seasoned lawyers and be paid for a wide range of services provided at relatively low cost to the people of Phoenix.
The plan is one of a dozen efforts across the country to address two acute - and seemingly contradictory - problems: heavily indebted law graduates with no clients and a vast number of Americans unable to afford a lawyer.
This paradox, fed by the growth of Internet-based legal research and services, is at the heart of a crisis looming over the legal profession after decades of relentless growth and accumulated wealth. It is evident in the sharp drop in law school applications and the increasing numbers of Americans showing up in court without a lawyer.
"It's a perfect storm," said Stacy Caplow, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who focuses on clinical education. "The long-standing concerns over access to justice for most Americans and a lack of skills among law graduates are now combined with the problems faced by all law schools. It's creating conditions for change."
A pilot program at the University of California Hastings College of the Law will place some third-year students into offices like the public defender's for full-time training on the understanding that the next year those students will be employed there for small salaries. The program is called Lawyers for America, a conscious echo of Teach for America, in which high-achieving college graduates work in low-income neighborhood schools. The hope, said professor Marsha Cohen of Hastings, is that other law schools will follow the model. Caplow of Brooklyn Law said her school planned to be one of the first.
A dozen law schools, including City University of New York and Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, have set up incubators to train future solo practitioners in their first year out of school, offering office space and mentors. Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y., opened what it calls a community law practice last fall with four graduates serving the region.
"You can't just hang out a shingle and expect clients to show up in droves," said Jennifer C. Friedman, executive director of the Pace Community Law Practice. "We want to provide our graduates with the tools of success while serving low- and moderate-income clients."
And the incoming president of the American Bar Association, James R. Silkenat, of New York, said his top priority next fall would be to establish a "legal job corps" to match lawyers who need jobs with clients who need legal assistance.
"We have these two issues running in opposite directions," Silkenat said in an interview. "There are unmet legal needs because of money and geography that seem to be growing, and the question of how to make use of unemployed recent graduates."
All law schools, including the elites, are increasing skills training by adding clinics and externships. Starting this fall, the University of Virginia will allow students to earn a semester of credit while working full time for nonprofit or government employers anywhere in the world. …