Biglaw, Howrey LLP, Killing Lockstep

Legal Press More Fascinated By Apprenticeship Programs than Law Firms

A year ago, Howrey announced that it was slashing first-year starting salaries and radically changing its first-year program. Drinker Biddle had adopted a similar “apprenticeship” approach a few weeks before Howrey. Aside from Howrey, Drinker Biddle, and some firm in Kentucky, no other law firm has tried to sell below market salaries and intensive “training” to new recruits.

Despite the paucity of firms attempting to remake the first year experience, the press remains fascinated by the experiment. In April, the Washington Post did a feature on Howrey’s first year experiment. Today, the National Law Journal has a full breakdown of the year-old program:

Proponents hail the programs as a positive step away from the sink-or-swim environment many young attorneys encounter when they show up at large firms, and as a practical response to the growing cost-consciousness of clients. The firms bill at much lower rates or not at all for work performed by the apprentices, who earn lower salaries than the industry standard.

The three firms that have gone in this direction claim that the apprenticeships are working. But since nobody is following their lead, it’s evident that the rest of Biglaw is not at all convinced…

There are two very good reasons apprenticeships haven’t caught on: A) Top recruits want to make as much money as possible. B) Partners want to make as much money as possible. Apprenticeship programs don’t seem to help either constituency do what they want to do:

Critics worry that lower apprenticeship salaries will hurt a firm’s ability to recruit top prospects and that the programs aren’t worth the necessary partner time and resources. The few firms that have made the transition are either litigation-focused or regional in scope. No large general practice or white-shoe firms have started apprenticeship programs, which likely adds to the overall reluctance to take that step, said Jordan Furlong, a Canadian legal consultant. He discussed apprenticeship programs at U.S. firms during a recent symposium on the evolution of law firms at Georgetown University Law Center.

Of course, the partners at the firms that have gone in this direction think they can get around the fundamental market incentive of earning more money:

Partners at each of the three firms said they are interested in young attorneys who are motivated by more than just money.

Right, and I’m interested in having sex with a woman who looks like Jessica Rabbit, but live-action associates don’t tend to act like idealized avatars of selflessness.

And it’s not just entitled law students holding out for more money. Partners are also reluctant to invest time or money into these programs:

Nixon Peabody is among the firms still on the fence. Such a program would add a level of consistency to the training that young associates receive and relieve them of the intense pressure to bill a high number of hours, conceded partner John Snellings, a member of the firm’s management committee.

Still, “in this economy, it is difficult to justify bringing in associates who will spend most of their time in training and not working on billable projects — even if you lower their salaries during the apprenticeship period,” Snellings said. “Given all the other pressures of modern-day practices, layering on one more project may be difficult to accomplish.”

So, who exactly is benefiting from these programs? The WSJ Law Blog has the answer:

Some clients, it seems, are clamoring for change in the way firms are run. Michael Holston, the top attorney at Hewlett-Packard Co., called apprenticeship programs “a great thing.” He added: “I’m not interested in paying the regular rates for a first-year. There needs to be a middle ground.”

Is anybody else starting to think that clients are way too obsessed with first year associates? First years aren’t responsible for all that is wrong with the economy. They didn’t cause the global financial meltdown. They weren’t manning BP’s oil rig. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball here.

In any event, when Howrey announced its program a year ago, almost 70% of you said you’d take the offer. Now that we’re well into our so-called economic recovery, it’s time to do another poll. Would you still want to take a paycut to $125K in order to get “enhanced training”?

Three Law Firms Claim Success With New Apprenticeship Model [National Law Journal]
The Early Reviews On Law-Firm Apprenticeships: So Far, So Good [WSJ Law Blog]

Earlier: Howrey First Years to $100K
Will Law Firms Follow Howrey’s Profit Diminishing Lead?

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