In the good old days, an aspiring lawyer could just read the law under the tutelage of an existing member of the bar. Then, around the beginning of the twentieth century, the ABA and AALS teamed up to begin requiring that wannabe lawyers graduate from law school as a barrier to entry. This was, I presume, mostly a barrier to entry, which I also presume actually worked at some point.

Fast-forward about ninety years to 1992, when the ABA finally figured out that they’d created a mess, formed a task force, and issued a long-winded report, to which law schools responded by creating more “real world” credit options for students. Well, it’s almost 2011, and the process still isn’t working.

Newly minted lawyers are, for the most part, still woefully unprepared to actually practice law. Enter the recession, and now we have thousands of graduates a year, some of whom are attempting to simultaneously solve their unemployment issues and bridge the chasm between legal theory and legal practice by opening their own practices right out of law school.

As an aside, I was amused that one of the ABA articles I found mentioned Harvard’s efforts at reform as including the requirement that first-year students “take courses in legislation, international law, and problem solving in addition to more traditional classes.” Gee, thanks Harvard.

Well, say what you will about their ranking, but at least the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law is taking the problem seriously….

UPDATE: CUNY is also taking things seriously, i.e., incubating its graduates, and has been doing so since 2007 (thanks to one of my readers for the tip).

Last week, UMKC announced the opening of its Solo and Small Firm Incubator:

Developed with assistance from The Missouri Bar Association and the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association’s Solo Practitioner/Small Firms committee, the Incubator will assist recent graduates entering solo and small firm practices. It will provide affordable office space for about nine tenants, as well as practice management assistance and mentoring so that graduates can gain support in launching their own practices, while also providing pro bono or affordable legal services to the underserved Troost area corridor.

This sounds like the kind of program that Sarah Buckley and Alexandra Hutchings, two recent UMKC law grads who started their own firm after being unable to legal jobs, could have benefited from.

The Incubator is UMKC Law’s latest effort to equip their graduates with practical knowledge. They’ve had an Entrepreneurial Legal Services Clinic since 2002 and offer more than a couple of courses in entrepreneurship and the business of running a practice. As Carolyn Elefant points out, the law school incubator concept isn’t entirely new, but UMKC takes matters a step further than other programs.

Many states have implemented some kind of “bridge the gap” program in an effort to connect new graduates with experienced lawyers, but I wonder how much oversight actually takes place. Consider the following: law students graduate into the awkward position of thinking they’re supposed to know the answers to legal questions that arise in practice, when in fact they do not. Thus, it’s likely that these new attorneys are not asking enough questions of their mentors.

On the other side, the mentor has his own clients and daily issues that will necessarily come between him and his altruistic efforts. Add to these problems the reality that these new solos and their respective mentors are in different offices (i.e., not down just down the hall), and the overall result of the program is, much like the education it means to supplement, good in theory but weak in practice.

By contrast, the UMKC program seems to provide a closer nexus (for those of you immersed in the revelry of Civ Pro outlines) between the new practitioner and his support system. In addition to having support from the local bar, the program bears the UMKC name, which should keep its administration actively involved, and will be housed just a stone’s throw from the law school, giving it a physical proximity that I think is conceptually important for those new attorneys. (There’s something reassuring about help literally being right around the corner.)

But even with these improvements, can incubator programs be the practical yang to law school’s theoretical yin? Will they really create well-rounded attorneys earlier in the process and give young graduates a viable alternative in the job market? Perhaps, but the overall success of incubator programs is still debatable. A recently completed manuscript on the subject concludes “that the effects of incubation are potentially deleterious to the long-term survival and performance of new ventures. Incubated firms outperform their peers in terms of employment and sales growth but fail sooner.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

I don’t mean to be overly cynical about the program — I think it’s a great step — but it’s not going to be a panacea for the lack of practical skills among new lawyers. Instead, we need a systemic solution. The incubator program is an example of simply polishing the product as it comes off the line. Instead, there needs to be an overhaul of how the product is made.

Why not have a rotating curriculum in law school where students spend a semester in class, then a semester in an intern/externship (or, as long as we’re wishing for things, a paying job). Law school gets longer and possibly even more expensive, both of which would hopefully temper the hubris of applicants. Meanwhile, those who still want to go through with it are forced into real-life practice earlier in the process, allowing them an earlier assessment of their choice and theoretically (yes, I’m aware of the irony here) producing graduates more interested in actually being lawyers.

I’m sure it’s not that simple, so tell me where I’m wrong. Email me or find me on Twitter.

UMKC School of Law launches Solo and Small Firm Incubator [University of Missouri-Kansas City (press release)]

Earlier: Can’t find work? Start your own firm.
Prior ATL coverage of small law firms


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