Apprenticeships – a best practice?

I recently returned from Serbia and Macedonia on a Public Interest Law Institute trip to help assess which Balkan law schools should join PILI’s expanding legal education reform project. Some professors were surprised that US law schools are also wringing their collective hands about how to give ideally all law students more meaningful experiential learning opportunities. But what really surprised our counterparts is that US law graduates can sit for the bar and get a license whether or not they’ve had any practice experience. Indeed, according to The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools, most schools don’t collect information about whether their students had any hands-on experience before getting a diploma.

Like in some central and eastern European countries, Serbian and Macedonian law graduates cannot become licensed until completing a 2-year apprenticeship in the office of the Prosecutor or Parliament, a judge, or a private firm or an NGO, and a licensed attorney certifies the fact.

As we in the US also wring our hands about the miserable job market, I wonder if we might be witnessing a move towards the Balkan model, with a focus on training and hands-on (usually public interest related) experience to launch new lawyers’ careers.

* We’re seeing legions of “deferred” associates spend a year at reduced (law firm) pay with government, advocacy or legal aid offices. According to an ABA Journal story, initial anecdotal feedback on the deferred associate strategy is very positive, from associates and host nonprofit organizations alike.

* Some law schools and bar associations – for example, Ohio State Bar Public Service Program, Houston Law Center, Cardozo, Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Michigan, Harvard, Stanford and Columbia — have recently created short-term paid post-graduate public interest employment opportunities. Recent graduates work “off campus” in nonprofits, and sometimes “on campus” in law school clinics and faculty research centers. According to recent news stories, Denver is fundraising to create a post-graduate state clerkship program and Miami is providing $10,000 foreclosure defense fellowships for eight graduates to help legal aid groups tackle backlogs of cases.

* More than 40 law schools (with some overlap of the above) have long supported at least one post-graduate fellowship either with small stipends or fully-funded public interest fellowship positions. And a growing number of schools have a pro bono or some other clinical, hands-on graduation requirement, including Washington & Lee’s recent transformation of its third year into a practice year. (For lists of school-supported fellowships, and graduation and clinic requirements, check out the Equal Justice Works Guide.)

* National Fellowship programs, providing 2-years of funding (largely from law firms), including the largest of its kind at Equal Justice Works and Skadden‘s program, enable new lawyers to get the hard-to-get entry level opportunities needed to launch public interest careers.

* Law firms are also getting in the first-year training game. For example, Howrey & Simon launched its “”lawyer training and initiation program specifically designed to accelerate the development of associate competencies.” First year lawyers spend only one-third of their year doing billable work, devoting the rest to pro bono representation, and participation in trainings including work with Howrey’s in-house writing instructor and assignment to trial teams. Drinker Biddle opted to start associates with a six month training program at a reduced salary rather than defer them. A recent ABA Journal article describes Nixon Peabody’s serious consideration of an apprenticeship program via a “Center of Excellence” where first-year associates “would train until they can graduate to a larger market.”

* At forums like the one held on October 30th at Columbia Law School, the profession and academy discussed the future of pro bono in a changing profession, including recent phenomenon of Big Firms sending new lawyers to public sector hosts for a year, and wondering if although launched in response to a market “crisis”, the model might continue in a more formal way.

This all makes me think we should consider a study tour to the Balkans, to learn more about their post-graduate apprenticeship program. Indeed, we would do well to remember that such luminaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes started his career as an apprentice. Though he did attend classes at Harvard Law School for a year, he balanced this with an apprenticeship at a Boston law firm before taking the bar.

Best Practices in Legal Education? Maybe.

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