Two weeks ago, Greenberg Traurig announced a lawyer residency program — one-year positions where lawyers spend a third of their time on training, are paid “considerably less than associates,” and billed out at lower rates. When the program concludes, residents may be offered a position as an associate, become a non-partnership track “practice group attorney,” or get shown the door. The program has elicited a range of reactions over its implications for Biglaw, ranging from potentially promising (David Lat and Toby Brown), to shortsighted and risky (Jordan Furlong), to a mixed bag for associates (Adam Ziegler).
But from the perspective of lawyers who want to start their own firms and have the option of handling traditionally “big firm” matters, residency programs like that offered by Greenberg Traurig are a boon. Imagine being paid to do little more than spend a year learning the ins and outs of big firm practice and practice areas by observing depositions and trials and accessing unlimited PLI content. Plus, residents have a chance to meet and network with other lawyers at GT and throughout the legal community; presumably, fewer billable hours means more time to hobnob. At the end of the residency, lawyers could move on to start their own firms — but with the benefit of a year of student loan debt repaid and a big firm credential on the résumé — which can be a selling point for certain types of clients (usually the kinds of clients who won’t experience sticker shock at your $250/hour rates because they’re accustomed to paying double that at a large firm)….
Perhaps what’s most valuable is the substantive knowledge acquired during the residency. Traditionally “big-firm” specializations like Dodd-Frank compliance, finance and M&A, antitrust, complex litigation or various regulatory practices are off-limits to many solo and small firm lawyers because of the difficulty in acquiring those skills. At the same time, knowledge of these fields can give new solos and smalls an advantage because they can command a higher rate for these more specialized services. Moreover, even if these practice areas don’t lend themselves to solo or small firm practice (for example, because clients may want to hire a larger firm with more manpower), lawyers can still extract value from these skills by providing them on a freelance or of counsel basis — which generates an added stream of income that can fuel a new practice.
Could solo and small firms incorporate the concept of residency programs? In some ways, many solos and smalls already have informal residency programs, often hiring second- or third-year law students for 15-20 hours a week and bringing them on full-time after graduation if the arrangement worked out and there’s sufficient work to justify a new hire. Other solos and smalls may lack the resources (or the patience) to oversee a lawyer-resident and pay a high enough salary to appeal to a qualified prospect. I’ve often believed that rather than focus exclusively on low-bono incubator models to train new solos and smalls, law schools could also subsidize independent solo and small firms that want to create residency programs. After all, not all potential solos and smalls want to run low-bono operations (and indeed, doing so could harm their long-term sustainability).
My firm does not have a formal residency program, but I frequently hire new lawyers with an interest in energy law on a contract basis and provide them with substantive work and hands-on training. Typically, after three to eight months, the experience and exposure gained at my firm enable young lawyers to move on to more permanent, long-term employment. So great is the need for training, particularly in specialized industries, that I’ve been approached by a federal agency to train a lawyer participating in a fellowship program but who focuses largely on non-legal work, and asked by a large-firm associate to take on volunteer work for a trade association that I work with. To be honest, based on this experience, I was beginning to think that as large firms shed associates, solos and smalls would be left holding the bag for training the next generation of lawyers. In that respect, Greenberg Traurig’s program is if anything a welcome sign that large firms haven’t yet given up on new lawyers, and that all of us — from big firms to solos — share the burden of training the next generation of lawyers.
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.