Legal Residencies? It Is About Time.

The subject of legal “residencies” is up for discussion again.  I have written about this before, and I am happy to see that it continues to be considered among the solutions for a still weak legal job market but also, and most important, as a way of improving the practice skills of recent law graduates.

Everyone is familiar with the medical residency.  It is a requirement of medical education in America, and it involves medical school grads spending a couple of years at hospitals for on-the-job training and little sleep.  It prepares them for real world practice and for being on-call and alert at all hours of the day.  Presumably.

Various types of legal education programs modeled after medical residencies are being experimented with around the county.  Most law schools now include clinical programs to provide legal services to indigents, and some law schools, like Arizona State University Law, have launched teaching law firms that are associated with the law school and hire and mentor recent graduates of the law school.  These programs respond to social needs and give recent grads exposure to real practice in a way that three years of law school does not.  Law schools also have experimented with programs dedicating the third year of law school to practical skills through mock law firm practice in areas of litigation and transactional practice.  I spoke in one of those programs several years ago at Washington & Lee Law, but I think the jury is still out on that experiment.

The most recent effort at such a program is from my own alma mater, Georgetown Law.  I am really pleased at the combined efforts of the law school and two leading law firms (DLA and Arent Fox) in establishing a non-profit “low bono” law firm to meet the needs of low income clients at affordable rates.  The “law firm” will be staffed by salaried lawyers from the recent Georgetown Law class, and DLA and Arent Fox lawyers will provide a range of services and support, including training and mentoring the new lawyers.

A twist on this theme also was offered in a New Republic article a couple of years ago.  There, Mark Chandler, general counsel at Cisco, explained how he wants law school to include paid internships that also will include law school credit.  He understands the value of those internships for relating classroom to real world, and he believes that industry is ready, willing and able to provide those experiences.  Perhaps the best part of his proposal is that the interning students would not have to pay law school tuition for the period of time they are involved in the paid internships.  What a novel approach!  Instead of bleeding law students of every dime they have, law schools would waive tuition and let them earn while they are gaining experience at internships.

And now, there is something a little different.  The Above the Law blog reports that UnitedLex, a third-party vendor and NOT a law firm, is partnering with four law schools (Vanderbilt, Ohio State, Emory and the University of Miami) to provide law graduates with hands-0n experience as residents in its legal services business.  More than 100 law graduates from the four participating schools have been hired by UnitedLex, and the UnitedLex CEO describes the program as an “alternative job path for graduates who don’t see toiling for a few years in a Biglaw firm as the key to a viable career.”  The dean of one of the law schools heralds the collaboration and describes it as part of “developing pipelines for our graduates.”  The silver lining for the participating law schools is that they receive  50% of the profit generated from clients of the project that is channeled to their alumni networks for student scholarships.  So, it appears to be a win-win for all.

Clearly, there is more than one way to provide hands-on practice experience for law students and recent graduates and also serve important societal and educational needs.  The key is to keep on brainstorming solutions and building the better mousetrap.

Law education is not sacred.  It can and must be improved to meet the needs of the current market for law grads and the realities of practice.  Let’s hope that more law schools and law firms break away from tradition and take up the challenge.







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