Law graduates’ plans and expectations all changed in
the past three years. Law firm clients tightened their overly- stretched budgets and refused to pay to train new lawyers. As a result, law firms put the brakes on hiring new graduates. All law firm hiring went down. Way down.
I. “Experience required”
The supply and demand pendulum has swung highly in the legal industry, knocking itself far off-balance. As a result of the market, new admittees have competed fiercely for jobs, and most job postings frequently scream two disappointing words, “experience required.” So pardon my naïveté in asking, like the kid who shouted out that the Emperor had no clothes, but how do we expect recent law school grads get trained to compete for starting and lateral jobs? Are they supposed to waive a magic wand and just become trained?
I know a young lawyer who graduated from a Chicago law school last year. He was hired at $13 an hour as a litigator for a small firm. While he was hungry for experience and worked very hard, he was fired some months later because a complaint he drafted almost went out the door with a typo. In 2012, the guys in the corner offices expect new grads to come to them knowing the finer nuances of practicing law. Novice lawyers are supposed to know that all pleadings, motions, briefs or letters must be cross-checked to perfection before being blessed --by virtue of the simple fact that they are now practicing law.
This lawyer’s story is not unique, and it stresses the underlying point – that new attorneys have to somehow get themselves trained … How does that happen? How can an inexperienced lawyer guide and mentor her own legal development? The answer lies in part with novice attorneys themselves as well as with the legal community at large.
New lawyers can find training in a few places: (a) at non-profits that provide legal services, (b) from the legal tech and temporary staffing worlds, or (c) from private practitioners, perhaps, with busy practices and overloaded credenzas.
As a legal community, we need to talk about this industry-wide dilemma and come up with real ways to meet the unmet need of training. There are novel ways emerging to train attorneys that we should also consider such as (a) creating law firms sponsored by the law schools themselves to teach practical skills (the South Carolina Model), (b) hiring private companies to teach firm associates and new grads, investing their own money, needed hands-on skills, and (c) formalizing a training framework similar to that used in the medical profession.
II. Help me help you – what new attorneys can do to help themselves
A. The Let Them Eat Cake Model
In today’s legal climate, doing pro bono work is one way for an industrious new attorney to get trained. This means (a) selecting one or more of Chicago’s outstanding legal services non-profit agencies, (b) being accepted as a volunteer, (c) attending training sessions taught by practitioners in the various practice areas of choice, and (d) representing clients. In this way, a new attorney learns to practice law and also receives mentoring from seasoned staff or a senior volunteer attorney. Most non-profits cover their volunteer lawyers under their malpractice insurance as well.
In many cases, a new volunteer attorney gets out into the legal community and away from the solitude behind her computer screen. She also meets people along the way who try to help her make connections and get hired. I have seen this over and over again; getting out and “doing good” does some good for all concerned. It’s a real win-win.
However, letting the non-profits train our newbies, obviously isn’t a perfect solution. A new attorney has bills to pay, rent, groceries and student loans … Moreover, from an industry point of view, we as lawyers need to decide if this is a training model we want to follow. Perhaps even more importantly, can organizations like Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, John Marshall Law School’s Veterans’ Clinic, and the Center for Disability and Elder Law, to name a few, handle all the training of Chicago’s new attorneys? Do non-profits even want to assume this enormous task?
B. Training from the legal tech and temporary staffing world
As most firms are employing fewer attorneys, hiring staff attorneys, and even engaging temporary staffing agencies to review documents for document productions, firms once- picky about who they hired and how their associates were trained, appear to be more lax. Many Big Law Chicago firms have taken a gigantic leap of cost-cutting faith in recent years, taking their chances with cheaper labor.
The attorneys hired for document reviews by temporary staffing companies are typically paid $20-$28 an hour with no benefits. Many of these attorneys seek my career counseling services, looking for help to find permanent employment in law. In rare instances, clients call me from cold, dirty warehouses where they are working with only a foot or two of personal space between attorneys. In my view, these arrangements potentially work for all concerned. Sometimes, for many reasons, including the caliber of training, it doesn't. (No names will be mentioned here.)
For the new grads hired as contract attorneys, they feel fortunate that at least they are getting paid to do actual legal work. They are doing aspects of the work that they went to law school to do. Hopefully, too, they are receiving good training about how to use a particular tech firm’s software and how to ascertain relevant documents in the litigation.
That’s all mostly good. It’s all different, though, too. Are we senior lawyers complacent to allow an emerging industry of e-discovery tech firms and temporary staffing agencies train our new lawyers? Should we worry that new attorneys may become pegged in the e-discovery industry and may not be trained to practice? I think it would be easy to agree that this not the most effective way to transition law students to the practice of law.
C. The Back Credenza Model
Even though law students and new grads will look at me quizzically when I advise them to create breathing space in their tight schedules, perhaps over a school break.
I know that most lawyers have enormous, bulging files on their back credenzas—files they just can’t seem to get to. These might be cases involving a difficult client or perhaps poor fact patterns that are not supported by governing state law. The credenza may even hold a file that has already reached its maximum billing amount. There may be an article back there that is waiting to be written.
Practitioners, perhaps a new attorney who has approached you for guidance or even a job might entertain an opportunity to handle a file or two on your back credenza on a contract basis. (The recent public conversation between the Department of Labor and the American Bar Association discusses how law students can no longer work for free under the Fair Labor Standards Act.) Not in every matter, but in many, two problems of our industry could be solved simultaneously in this way. Going a step further, the Illinois Supreme Court recently inaugurated a Lawyer Mentoring Program through its Commission on Professionalism. Supreme Court Rule 795(d)(12), adopted in October 2010, outlines the requirements necessary for mentors and mentees to explore legal ethical issues while receiving CLE credit for this type of teaching arrangement.
III. New training methods for the legal community to consider
A. The South Carolina Model It has been suggested that law schools should take on the responsibility of opening law firms where new graduates could be trained in the practice of law. This is essentially an extension of law clinics that already exist at many schools. These firms would be run and mentored by seasoned practitioners. As the clients who retain new attorneys' legal services would e paying something for these services, the new grads would also receive salaries in this venture. "What if Law Schools Opened Their Own Law Firms?" Karen Sloan, The National Law Journal, August 17, 2011.
University of Maryland School of Law Professor Robert Rhee and Brooklyn Law School Professor Bradley Borden write, "[Junior attorneys] will be expected to do client work but will also learn how to be a successful attorney. They will learn how to develop a book of business and make contacts in the community that will benefit them as practicing attorneys.” More on this “South Carolina Model” will be presented in a forthcoming issue of the South Carolina Law Review. While this is a new concept with some kinks in the armor, we need to seriously consider this training model for the profession.
B. A private trainer
Perhaps private trainers, like the tech firms, should train our legal graduates. These private companies are springing up, providing trainings for new lawyers, ranging from one to three- day long seminars. Some law firms are paying these new companies to do their associates’ training. Job seekers are also participating to gain an edge on the competition.
Similar to the other suggestions raised in this article, hiring a private trainer also has its drawbacks. Chiefly, committing to a private trainer can be a considerable financial undertaking. Fees typically start around $900.00. New attorneys would have to determine whether any competitive edge from this training would outweigh the cost.
C. The Show and Tell Model
Maybe we lawyers should adopt the model of “Show and Tell.” Here, firm elders actually hire recent grads and pay them a reasonable sum. This model wouldn’t cost firms any extra financial outlays in the long run. Firm would be able to hire more attorneys, show them how to practice law and tell them about winning methodologies in their respective practice areas.
Show and Tell: Feeling Much Better. The medical profession plays this game well. Medical programs transition students from medical school to medical practice. Depending on the area of specialty that the doctor wants to practice, training programs can run from three to six years.
Even before medical students are accepted into medical programs, they have a clear understanding of what the future holds for them; they know what they are getting into, how long their training will take, and what they will be paid during the duration of their programs. These students enter the medical profession knowing they will work ridiculously hard for three or more years, depending on their specialty. They also know that they will be well-trained to practice medicine after they finish their programs.
Show and Tell for Lawyers. As practitioners, we need to keep discussing what business model will work best for us. Following what doctors do, pay less in salary during the internship and residency years while actively training recent grads how to provide needed services, is an option.
To do this in law, all the Firm A’s out there would need to be convinced to pay a reasonable starting salary to first year associates, perhaps $45,000 a year, what new doctors earn. Paying this salary would allow all of the Firm A’s to hire nearly four times more associates. That’s also four times more new associates being trained in the practice of law, all at roughly the same cost that is paid to one top associate today. Also, after investing the firm’s time and effort into associate recruiting and training, the firm can quadruple its chances of retaining talent.
Hypothetically, if new grads can be billed out at a reasonable rate, say $100 - $125 an hour, our cherished clients might not mind footing the bill for their training. What a concept! Think of it this way: if you were ever in the hospital, did you receive a visit from the residents or the interns? You may or may not have liked their services to you, but did you ever quibble about their charges? I’m guessing you didn’t. I’m guessing that you accepted those charges as fair and reasonable, as a price of being admitted to a teaching hospital. Perhaps part of you, too, may have accepted those charges as part of something bigger, the importance of training new doctors.
There is another advantage to the Show and Tell Model. We all know that good grades in school do not necessarily transfer to the skills actually needed in the practice of law. The showing and telling paradigm might cut out the class warfare that permeates our law school classrooms. If new attorneys start their training on a relatively level financial playing field, each can succeed on his or her own merit, earning a growing salary based on performance.
Overall, the hiring and training model utilized in the medical industry could be effective in the legal profession as well. Creating internships and residencies for new lawyers would be extremely helpful for them, relieving their many pressures about their unknown futures.
IV. How do we achieve balance?
In the post-2008 legal world, new lawyers’ training is getting lost in the shuffle. Especially for inexperienced lawyers who want to apply for available lateral positions that they are not yet qualified for, the challenge of finding threshold training is substantial.
Perhaps when the corner office folks are looking to hire new talent (because the trained attorneys are burned out, no longer care about the money and have left the practice), there will be a rare few. The attorneys eager to work in law firms simply won’t be qualified. I think it is more than fair to conclude that new attorneys need some help; they can't train themselves.
I hope we will create a way to take care of our own. I hope we will soon stop cringing and retreating into our safe, comfortable, corner offices when we hear about new attorneys’ outstanding debt and their lack of health insurance.
Perhaps the hiring freezes will thaw somewhat when our very own children and grandchildren come knocking on our corner office doors, wanting to follow in our professional footsteps. “Sorry, honey. We’re not hiring.”
This article appeared in The Chicago Bar Record, January 2012 edition.
About Nancy Glazer
Nancy created Legal Launch, LLC to help law students, recent law school graduates and attorneys land rewarding traditional and nontraditional legal careers. She prides herself on understanding the market and what a prospective employer wants in a candidate. Even for those who never wanted to practice law traditionally, she has nonstop ideas in store.
Throughout her 25-year legal career, she has always mentored law students and experienced lawyers in their career development. She also serves as an arbitrator, and she formerly worked as the Director of Legal Services for the Center for Disability and Elder Law f/k/a/ The Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Inc. There, she supervised three in-house attorneys and over 200 volunteer attorneys serving the legal needs of low-income people with disabilities.
Nancy previously practiced commercial litigation as an associate in the Chicago office of McDermott, Will and Emery. She received her J.D. from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 1986, ranking 12th out of 149 in her class. She graduated from Occidental College, magna cum laude and with honors.
Nancy lives in Deerfield, Illinois with her husband and three daughters, where everything stops for the Illini …
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