Preparedness for practice: Law Graduates

Preparedness for practice: Law Graduates

How prepared are law graduates to begin practice?

By David Ferry

U.S. law schools are urgently debating how to remake legal education now that staggering student debt and a limited number of legal jobs have yielded a 46 percent drop in applications since 2004, according to the Law School Admission Council. Meanwhile, as many as 52,500 law students will graduate this spring and have to line up experience and jobs based on the current training offered by schools. Two recent endeavors in California could help them do just that.

Bridge to Practice

A growing number of students are taking advantage of university-funded “bridge to practice” programs. The programs, which have sprung up at law schools across the country since the beginning of the recession, pay recent graduates to volunteer their legal skills at government agencies or nonprofits, for example. This allows the grads to gain valuable experience and contacts – and the schools can mark off the new alums as “employed” when US News and World Report comes knocking.

In a recent study by the NALP professional advocacy group, 55 percent of responding law schools reported having some sort of bridge-to-practice program. And though some schools have long maintained such programs, 78 percent of them were created since 2008.

They vary widely, from “excellent” opportunities that demonstrably lead to full-time jobs, to others that seem “almost nakedly designed to lift a law school’s overall employment rate without actually providing any sort of career advancing experience,” according to a separate NALP report on the class of 2011. One school, Southern Methodist’s Dedman School of Law, goes so far as to pay private firms to try out their recent graduates for one month, “no strings attached,” in a program called Test Drive.

NALP executive director James Leipold admits that because these efforts in effect provide a sort of “jobs relief program,” he’s “willing to be a little less cynical about [the law schools’] motives.”

Still, Leipold worries that in the longer run this kind of spending on new grads won’t be sustainable. UCLA, for example, paid 63 recent alumni (18 percent) from the class of 2011 between $15 and $20 an hour to volunteer. But Elizabeth Moeller, the school’s assistant dean of career services, says that with the job market the way it is, bridge-to-practice isn’t going anywhere. “We haven’t had any discussions about pulling back or getting rid of it,” she says.

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Mind the Gap

By Barbara Kate Repa

Through a new program cheekily titled Mind the Gap (after the London Underground’s warning not to fall between the cracks), the Bar Association of San Francisco offers unemployed and underemployed new attorneys training, supervision – and all-important opportunities to schmooze with their seasoned and working brethren.
Billed as a “practical skills pro bono initiative,” the program was the brainchild of Chris Kearney, managing partner at San Francisco’s Keker & Van Nest and the bar group’s president this year. He says the need to counteract “the worst legal employment market in a generation” was hammered home when he found himself at a reception in a room full of 150 new admittees late last year.

“They’re eager, they’re motivated, they went to law school for a reason, they want to help people, and they’re interested in growing their careers,” he says. More than 50 people signed up for help on the spot; about 200 are now enrolled in Mind the Gap, along with 50 attorneys who are volunteer mentors.

The program attempts to be a bridge between classroom learning and the day-to-day skills needed to practice the law. It offers free continuing education programs and experience through the bar’s volunteer legal service program, along with mentoring and supervision for the newbies through their first cases.

To address those nettlesome school debts, the first seminar offered to Mind the Gap participants is Getting a Grip on Your Student Loans, with tips on reducing and repaying debts.

According to Ann Murphy, the bar association’s director of communications, Mind the Gap also furthers the cause of good karma. “It will help attorneys do more pro bono – and ingrain that need in them at a younger age, while also helping a number of indigent San Franciscans get legal services. It’s a win-win.”

Or maybe a win-win-win.