Reflections on incubators, “Lawyers for America” and post-grad “community law practice”

Almost a week ago, the New York Times featured an article on programs by some law schools to start “firms” to help with graduate placement . The NYT article triggered a chain of very thoughtful and informative e-mail comments and discussion on the clinic listserv (and I hope that some of the commentators share their thoughts again by commenting on  this post below).   Commentators carefully tried to untangle and analyze the hodge-podge of goals, concerns and ideas that were unfortunately conflated in the breezy article.

One of the issues which is often subsumed in the article and in the discussion of these projects is the potential to address inequity in access to justice in America. According to the World Justice Project’s most recent report, the United States continues to fare poorly in Rule of Law indicators when it comes to access to counsel and the difference in behavior between high and low income individuals:

“ <i>in the United States, among the low income litigants, 81% did not seek legal assistance because they felt that they could not afford the lawyer’s fees, compared to 48% of the high income litigants.”</i>

And as Gillian K. Hadfield observes in commenting on plummeting law school admissions , “We have a significant mismatch between demand and supply.” “

Is there promise in these “law school law firm” initiatives to address this country’s truly awful reputation on lack of access to justice?  Cathryn Miller-Wilson believes there is: “Harmonizing Current Threats: Using the Outcry for Legal Education Reforms to Take Another Look at Civil Gideon and What it Means to be an American Lawyer”

Others are bemused that the entire conversation appears to ignore the law firms that already exist within law schools – in-house clinics.  Is it a secret that law schools already have been focused on teaching through law firm practice since the early part of the last century?
Is the emphasis on clinics as teaching labs and the focus on the development of a student from neophyte to emerging lawyer an inconvenient fact?

Still others are angered that this emphasis on law schools running firms, especially when client fees are involved, unfairly competes with our struggling new graduates.

What do you think?

4 Responses

  1. Thank you, Mary, for so aptly summarizing the interesting discussion that we had a few days ago. I comment again here to respond solely to the “bemused” who can’t understand why the law firms within a law school that already exist are being ignored.

    I think this is a great and valid point, and considering it leads to an ironic truth, built upon smaller truths. The smaller truths are that the bemused authors are absolutely correct – due to the tremendous efforts of many, the movement to create the law firm within the law school, otherwise known as the law school clinical movement, has grown exponentially since the seventies. The success of law school clinics – in house law firms – has been well documented by many. Clinics have made lots of in-roads in teaching students how to lawyer, providing that lawyering learning in a poverty context thereby both answering the access to justice call and exposing students to the need.

    Clinics meet many laudable pedagogical goals. These are the smaller truths. What the success of the clinical movement demonstrates, as I discuss in my article, however, is the irony that in all of this outcry about the crises in legal education, where we should be going is seeking MORE time and resources – not less.

    So, my point in seeking to create post graduate teaching law firms modeled after teaching hospitals, is not made without awareness of the wonderful law firm work being done already during the three years of law school. It’s because if we truly listen to the issues of concern regarding what law school teaches us – and doesn’t – we can hear that what law students and new lawyers need is MORE time on task, not less. And a look at medical education only supports this notion.

    Medical schools have clinics, where students practice being doctors. Yet after medical school, M.D.’s (with some exceptions not relevant to this discussion) attend a residency program. The only true justification, in my opinion, for not creating a legal education program which is analogous to the residency, is financial, not pedagogical. This being the case, the question then becomes “how?”, rather than “what?”. And “how”, from a group of committed, creative effective lawyers, is a much easier question to answer than “what?”.

  2. Those of us who teach in law school clinics understand the complexity of the increased attention to experiential learning in general as the legal market continues to upheave itself. In part, it is ironic. On the other hand, it is an opportunity. My perspective on it is perhaps even broader–I find myself utterly fascinated with the discussions both inside and outside the legal academy regarding survival in the changing market alongside discussions regarding best practices. I recall sitting in a classroom in Dublin as a law student listening to Justice Scalia rail against, among other things, the United States’ [in his opinion] over-lawyered, excessively litigious culture. And while I disagreed with many other points the good Justice made during that four week course, I agreed with him on that one. That was 15 years ago, during a boom in the legal and overall economic markets. The boom is long over, and the legal market is reassembling itself, as it well should. We must be leaner. We must engage in best practices in order to do so. Those two goals appear difficult to reconcile to some. Not to those of us dedicated to high quality, pedagogically sound, clinical legal education. We do more with less every day, and we do it with a commitment to quality and a common voice that is rare in any higher education sector. It is my privilege to be part of that community of educators.

  3. I think that the question of how in-house clinics are different from incubator firms is not limited to funding. The added benefit of incubators or residency programs for law graduates has to do with the business and practice model of serving low- and even middle-income clients. When my students leave my Clinic, they overwhelmingly enter a legal market that asks them to take jobs that serve higher income clients, including governments and high-profile nonprofits. There just doesn’t seem to be a place for students to go even when they are willing to serve low- and middle-income clients. That, I think, is what incubators can do: give graduates the business skills to run a practice for underserved clients.

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