Job Searches, Law School Deans, Law Schools

A ‘Teaching Law Firm’ Like a Teaching Hospital? Why the Hell Not?

In the words of Dr. Peter Venkman: “I love this plan, I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Not that I’m actually any part of the plan that they’re putting together out west, but anytime somebody suggests a bold new way to cross the streams of legal education and legal employment, I say, “LET’S DO IT.”

And even if it means that a few classes of graduating students end up covered in sticky marshmallow, so be it…

The concept from Douglas Sylvester, Dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State, isn’t all that novel when you think about medical schools. But it would represent a radical departure for law schools. From the National Law Journal:

A visit to the famed Mayo Clinic last year got Douglas Sylvester thinking. The medical residency system gives fledgling doctors real-world experience under close supervision, so why doesn’t anything similar exist for new lawyers beyond the sink-or-swim law firm associate system?

Sylvester, dean at Arizona State Uni­versity Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, set out to create what he hopes will be the first large-scale, nonprofit training law firm affiliated with a law school. Administrators are still working out the details, but hope to have the as-yet-to-be named firm up and running by 2013.

Let’s assume, for the sake of this post at least, that Sylvester and his people will be absolutely honest and transparent about the number of graduates employed by this “law school law firm,” as opposed to those working at real, private sector firms. Let’s assume for a second that this isn’t an elaborate game of the U.S. News system and recruiting data designed to mask a hoard of unemployed and unemployable law students from the prying eyes of those concerned with law school transparency. Let’s assume that this is being offered as a solution to a problem as opposed to a statistical shell game.

That is a lot of assumptions. But if Arizona State is acting in good faith, this could be a very interesting project. Everybody is familiar with the concept of a teaching hospital. Hell, Dr. House worked at a teaching hospital, so we know it’s legit.

And, as many have pointed out, the profit motive of legal practices is often cited as one of the biggest problems with the profession — and a reason why economically disadvantaged people are underserved despite the glut of attorneys. Putting together a non-profit law firm, affiliated with a university system and law school, wouldn’t just be an opportunity for students to learn practical experience; it would also give people low-cost access to motivated lawyers.

And the recent graduates would get paid too:

The preliminary plan calls for hiring five or six experienced attorneys who would essentially act as partners and supervise 15 to 30 “resident lawyers” — recent ASU grads. The residents would spend a set amount of time — most likely capped at two years — cycling through different practice areas including bankruptcy, family law and corporate organization. The firm would charge clients for legal services, but at relatively low rates. Any profit would finance scholarships.

Although the firm would be affiliated with the law school, state law prevents ASU from actually owning it. “The recent graduates working there would be paid, with benefits,” Sylvester said. “It’s a law firm, in all of the traditional aspects of the law firm, with two major differences — it’s a nonprofit, and it’s a teaching law firm. But you can be fired if you don’t do a good job.”

Why not? Honestly, we all know that law schools do not produce people who are ready to practice law, and we all know that firms (and their clients) are more reluctant than ever to provide a “finishing school” for law students. We know that the third year of law school is a complete waste of time, but we also know that law schools will never give it up because it’s an extra year of tuition they can juke out of their students.

Given all of those realities, why wouldn’t a school try something new to provide that bridge between the education they provide and the skills employers require? Just because it’s a non-profit doesn’t mean it will cost ASU a lot of money (especially since clients would still be charged, albeit modestly). Wouldn’t you like to see Arizona State Law fighting Arizona over the quality of its post-graduate legal practice rather than its ranking in a magazine?

I fear this “law school law firm” might wind up as a disingenuous attempt to manipulate the school’s “employed upon graduation” numbers. But assuming that Arizona State isn’t trying to game the statistics, this could end up being pretty cool. There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.

Think of It as a Residency for Lawyers [National Law Journal]

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