The apprenticeship marketplace

Critical mass, like the famous definition of obscenity, is one of those things you can’t necessarily define but that you know when you see. We’re approaching a critical mass of discourse on the necessity of change within the American law school system, and when we reach that point, the focus will switch overnight from necessity to inevitability. The latest step in that direction comes courtesy of a National Law Journal article with the suggestive title “Reality’s knocking.” It details efforts underway at numerous law schools — including Washington and Lee, Dayton, Northwestern, Indiana/Bloomington, UCLA, UC Irvine, and the latest entrant, Duke — to integrate market-readying client-focused training into their programs.

[A] growing number of law schools are emphasizing teamwork, leadership, professional judgment and the ability to view issues from the clients’ perspective. “I think we are at a moment of historical change across the landscape of legal education,” said Washington and Lee Dean Rodney A. Smolla. “When we look back at this period in five to 10 years, we will mark it as the time when the whole mission of law schools made a fundamental turn.”

The thrust of these changes — whether shortening the law degree by one year, supplementing traditional coursework with legal skills instruction, simulating law firm environments (complete with client relations and billing), or introducing professional values training in the first year — is to accelerate law graduates’ development into full-fledged lawyers. By doing so, these schools hope to improve relations with the private bar (an increasingly important source of funding), better compete with other school for the most promising pre-law candidates, and (one would like to think) better serve the long-term interests of their students. By and large, these are very welcome developments, and there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll see a lot more of them in the next few years.

What especially caught my interest in the NLJ story, however, was a nearly-throwaway paragraph illustrating the kinds of pressures schools are feeling from the private bar:

The legal labor market is saying that it’s no longer willing to pay top dollar to recent graduates who lack work experience. Law firms including Washington’s Howrey and Philadelphia’s Drinker Biddle & Reath recently announced apprenticeship programs wherein starting associates earn less and spend a significant amount of time training and shadowing partners.

I’ve written about these programs before — Frost Brown Todd, Strasberger and Price, and Ford Harrison have followed suit — and I hope to put together a much more detailed treatise on this subject down the road. Under these initiatives, the law firms pay their new associates much less than the market rate and require far fewer billable hours from them; associates spend most of their time in apprenticeship, training and shadow programs with experienced lawyers, with (unbilled) client contact and observation opportunities where possible. These firms have heard their clients complain about paying to train new lawyers unprepared by three years of law school, and either to mollify these clients, to stake a marketing advantage, or (one would like to think) to actually better serve both their clients’ and their lawyers’ interests, they’ve responded with this new approach.

But what’s most interesting is that these innovative new programs at the law firms don’t really differ in any substantial way from the innovative new programs at the law schools. Both are focused on providing new lawyers with the practical training, skills development, and professional awareness that a traditional law degree and most bar admissions processes fail to deliver. Both aim to reduce the steep learning curve that new lawyers have always had to climb, making them readier to serve clients and generate billable work than they otherwise would be.

What this means is that for the first time, law schools and law firms are providing the same service — apprenticeship training. And when two or more providers offer the same basic service, you’ve got yourself a marketplace. Very good things can happen in marketplaces — intense competition to improve offerings, constant pressure to innovate, a diversity of ideas and approaches, continual erosion of barriers to entry. All of these developments work to the ultimate benefit of that marketplace’s consumers — in this case, new lawyers and (ultimately) the clients whom they’ll serve. The more schools and the more firms that enter this marketplace, the better and faster the results will flow.

I can’t wait to see what a lawyer apprenticeship marketplace might produce over the next several years. But there’s a potentially major problem with this playing field: one of these providers charges its consumers an annual tuition to receive this service, while the other pays its consumers an annual salary. That’s no contest, and in the long run, it will mean that this is a service you can’t charge students to receive — or, more radically, one that new lawyers won’t earn a salary to obtain.


  1. Susan Cartier Liebel

    Jordan, You write:

    “But there’s a potentially major problem with this playing field: one of these providers charges its consumers an annual tuition to receive this service, while the other pays its consumers an annual salary.”

    I beg to differ on this point. As clients of large firms are stating: they won’t pay for the apprenticeship. If clients won’t pay, law firms can’t offer…at least not with a salary. True. However, I believe students WILL pay for the training as part of their education and it is the law school’s responsibility to provide. Many students wish they had this training/education in law school meaning they thought when the were paying for it it was part of the package. If paying for the training (which, again, should be referred to as education) they recoup that (in theory) once they are marketable and obtain a salary. The challenge is making it work – whereby the law schools can charge a tuition and create real life work that doesn’t create conflict with charging for ‘free labor’.

    Quite frankly, when I was working in our clinics, we were providing services to the indigent but we paid for the privilege of doing so by supporting the clinic and its professors with our tuition. We were paying to work on real cases. And this is what gave me confidence to go out on my own. And if law firms did the same with interns, why couldn’t the money presumably earned go back to some kind of fund for the indigent or contribute to the running of the clinics, internship and externship programs which provided the students the opportunity.

    First and foremost, the students want to be marketable. The law firms are being forced by their clients to hire ready-to-work associates. Shouldn’t the schools and the ABA w/their rules and regs. figure it out. Because as a student today, I want to be ready to go after my three years and training is part of my education and tuition. It is not the law firms job to train me to be a lawyer. Their only obligation is to train me to be the lawyer that’s right for their firm by the specific training they offer. It’s time the law schools stop getting a free ride when it comes to educating lawyers.

    I’ve written more here (more than three years ago.)

  2. Vickie Pynchon

    Thank you Jordan for always being so tremendously out in front of these issues. Jeez, I’ve been saying since my last year of law school (’79-’80) that the third year is a waste of time. I took that year to apprentice myself to a local P.I. attorney who taught me to do everything I could do without a license to practice. I worked 30-40 hours/week during my third year, skipped most of my classes and earned my only “top of the class” award ever (they call these things AmJur awards in the States).

    These apprenticeship programs might irritate top law students entering their first year of practice (particularly since they have loans to service of a size that my generation did not) but these programs would serve young attorneys well, even if they come at the price of a lower first year salary.

    Through Lawyer Connection and elsewhere, I’ve met many young refugees from BigLaw who have practiced somewhere between 2 and 5 years before becoming casualties of the recession. Many of them are REVIEWING DOCUMENTS for similar firms rather than, say, opening their own law firms (at least to get through the downturn) because no one has yet taught them anything about how to practice law. They haven’t taken or defended a deposition or argued a motion in court, let alone tried a lawsuit to Judge or jury. If they are transactional lawyers, they’ve never put a deal together from start to finish. When I say, “why don’t you start your own firm with your laid off BigLaw friends” they look at me like I’m NUTS. “We don’t know anything about how to practice law,” they tell me. “No time like the present” I respond.

    I remember my first employer telling me that he and his brother (it was a two-man firm) celebrated every time the court clerk accepted their papers and they spent a lot of their first year playing Scrabble. By the time they hired me, they had a flourishing practice and were well-respected in town. By the end of my own first year of practice, I’d briefed and argued an appeal; taken and defended dozens of depositions, settled many small cases that were my own to handle; arbitrated at least one case; second-chaired three jury trials; written many sets of jury instructions; counseled clients; directed the activities of our private investigator and just generally practiced my trade. Those first couple of years remain the bedrock of my legal skills. I’m so glad I resisted the advice of all of my law professors who told me not to join this small Sacramento law firm because I could “trade down” but never “trade up” to BigLaw where they believed I belonged. (I did, by the way, trade up).

    We do our young attorneys, particularly the best and the brightest, a terrible disservice when we lure them into high paid jobs where we treat them as bright paralegals for years. The bright side of the recession is that finally, finally, law firms might begin to change with the times.

  3. Jay Parkhill

    My law school, probably like most, had an externship program in the 3rd year where students could spend time working for judges and elsewhere. That concept could certainly be expanded without demanding radical change from the structure of legal education.

    At the same time, most law firms are so tightly squeezed these days that there are probably only so many apprentices they can take on. And even more to the point, big law firms hire only a tiny percentage of law grads every year. Seems like the apprentice concept is more complementary between schools and firms than competitive.

    I think law law schools should keep law school at 3 years, continue letting students explore specialty areas in 3rd year classes, and actively encourage them to get out and train with judges, firms, public interest organizations, etc. for course credit. Who would lose in that situation?

  4. Tim Wilbur

    I agree that practicial training is lacking in most law schools and should be incorporated in creative and effective ways. However, the risk on the other side of the scale is that what can really only be learned by practice – communication and management skills, ethics – ends up being taught only in theory. MBAs, while useful to acquire some very important knowledge (financial analysis, business law and history, etc.) often fall prey to this problem – courses on teamwork and management theories put a scientific gloss on what is really just experiential learning.

    Clinic work, internships and the integration of service delivery throughout law school, along with the aquisition of technical and analytical skills in a classroom setting, is where law schools should be going.

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