Ask the Experts, Job Searches, Law Students, Technology

From Across the Desk: An Apprenticeship to Practice — That Works

Each came to ApprenticeRamp via a different path: Zach because he took a 1L course on “reinventing the legal profession,” Shanique because she’d worked for the Fed before law school and thus had an interest in banking, and Stephanie because she’d always been interested in contract drafting but the contracts courses in law school “felt like it was in a box” and wasn’t practical.

What’s a “typical” day?

First, understanding what the client is looking for in contract analysis, then learning how to become expert at what you’re asked to do. Many days also involve a dose of “rounds” — modeled after the medical student/hospital residency custom, where students learn from senior experts, and/or meetings with potential and current clients.

You get to meet with clients? Really?

Yes, starting just six to eight weeks into the program, Stephanie was joining pitches to customers, which she notes drily “is probably not what the typical new associate gets.” And: “I feel as though I’ve learned so much in just 5 to 6 months; I’ve had opportunities other people haven’t.”

What do you want people to know about the experience? In no particular order, but as they responded:

1. How quickly you learn about contracts; you get constant feedback through the system.
2. The available resources “amazing; I felt like I learned more about contracts in my first two weeks at OnRamp than in all my past internships put together.”
3. Metrics are terrific; you can see your performance and track it in real time. “In other positions you wouldn’t get such rigorous feedback all the time.”
4. The organization seems “extremely forward-looking, not just in use of technology, but the way it goes about its business.” It’s a very flat structure; people are encouraged to find their own talent and then nurture it, which is “foreign to law firms, where you’re expected to do a certain type of work until maybe somebody realizes you have another skill.”
5. “Law firms engage in very short-term thinking [in terms of their business model] but OnRamp is trying to be creative and open to solving problems to meet client needs using any tools and means they can come up with.”
6. “One thing you don’t learn in law school but is really important in this role is knowing more about the business of law. [This was music to my ears.] You also learn things at OnRamp like project management: Creating a project plan, creating and sequencing tasks for a project, assigning resources to achieve those tasks. It’s not just substantive law.”
7. Zach stresses how “dense the learning environment is,” as compared to law school where “you get essentially no feedback until maybe the end of the semester.” This adds up: “Find me a law firm that’s invested enough in their associates to put them in front of the deputy GC of a major bank.”

Talk about attrition among the apprentices: Do you see people drop out? Has anyone said, “this just isn’t for me?”

(They have to think about this.) Finally, “somebody left within two months because they got their dream job offer elsewhere.” Then they qualify it: “I think; not sure. But nobody has ever said, ‘this isn’t for me.’”

[Let’s pause, shall we, and compare that with the reactions of three typical junior associates in law firms. No need to tarry on this thought lest it interfere with your digestion.—Bruce]

What’s the reaction of your peers? Of your law schools? (On this they are extremely voluble.)

Zach volunteers that the “typical law student just wants a secure job but has no idea what that actually means; OnRamp grads have far more specific and realistic expectations about what jobs can be. Classmates would ask me, ‘OK, are you going to look for a real job now?’”

Shanique volunteers that she didn’t expect to stay at OnRamp very long, and in fact got a job offer a few months ago at what she calls a “conventional company” (in-house): She asked how the company planned to grow people over (say) the next five years of their careers “and their answer was disappointing.” She adds a sophisticated observation: “Their environment was far too unstructured, with no way for the company to evaluate recent arrivals vs. longer-term employees.” [Sound familiar?—Bruce.]

As for law schools’ attitude, as recently as nine months to a year ago it was “tons of skepticism; we were very much encouraged to look for more conventional options by Career Services, [but] they’ve all been surprised by how quickly it’s taken off and how fast people are gaining value from it.” That doesn’t mean all schools are embracing it equally. One of them volunteers that at their school “the Dean is forward-looking but there’s a lot of pushback at Career Services; the only route to go is to a law firm.”

At Harvard, according to Zach, the issue is simply that hardly anyone knows about it; “the only people who do are ones I’ve told. But you have to understand the hiring dynamics at Harvard are very different; people aren’t looking outside the traditional model at all. ‘Alternatives’ are things like McKinsey and Citi.”

Could “alternatives” some day — even at empyrean Harvard — include ApprenticeRamp?

I for one am convinced we have to try… different. We have to spawn and spin out theories about ways to make this mismatched and dysfunctional market “clear.” We have to think big, experiment, test, revise, and test again. But mostly we have to start theorizing, and trying.

Paul Lippe:

We started by talking to people outside law — Intel, NASA, the project teams at global banks — and then spent more time listening to those lawyers who talk about what can be done, rather than those who dismiss what can’t. Over the last few months I have been talking to a lot of federal judges about problems of ‘Access to Justice,’ and now we’re beginning to work on applying these approaches to support very large scale clinical collaboration. Although addressing the access to justice challenge won’t require approaches as structured as our contract genome mapping work, it will require scale.

We think we’ve created a better mousetrap for uber-complex projects with iterative information requirements: And we’re betting on the young Rampers to help us improve it.

As the legendary Freeman Dyson recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, reviewing Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein — Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe:

Science consists of facts and theories. Facts and theories are born in different ways and are judged by different standards. Facts are supposed to be true or false. They are discovered by observers or experimenters. A scientist who claims to have discovered a fact that turns out to be wrong is judged harshly. One wrong fact is enough to ruin a career.

Theories have an entirely different status. They are free creations of the human mind, intended to describe our understanding of nature. Since our understanding is incomplete, theories are provisional. Theories are tools of understanding, and a tool does not need to be precisely true in order to be useful. Theories are supposed to be more-or-less true, with plenty of room for disagreement. A scientist who invents a theory that turns out to be wrong is judged leniently. Mistakes are tolerated, so long as the culprit is willing to correct them when nature proves them wrong.

ApprenticeRamp may or may not be around for a long time, and whatever happens of one prediction I’m confident: It will continue to evolve and morph. But for my money, it’s the best darned theory I’ve seen out there yet.

This is the latest installment in a series from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” takes a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital, and related issues. Some of these pieces have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on