Law schools fund firms to train recent graduates

By SUDHIN THANAWALA

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Baseball has the minor leagues. Medicine offers residency programs. But recent law school graduates have no equivalent training opportunities to hone their skills — at least until now.

A tight job market for new lawyers and a push to make legal representation more affordable have prompted law schools in California and other states to fund startup law firms.

About two dozen so-called legal incubators or fellowship programs have cropped up nationwide in recent years to teach a few select law graduates the basics of legal practice and expand services to people who otherwise couldn’t afford a lawyer. And more schools are set to jump into the mix.

Many of the programs help graduates set up solo practices.

“The idea was to take new lawyers and give them the support that traditionally has not been provided in terms of setting up a business and also inspiring them to spend part or all of their practice doing modest-means work,” said Lilys McCoy, who runs The Center for Solo Practitioners at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. The program launched in 2012.

Critics of the incubators, however, question whether the real goal might be to boost law school employment figures and say the incubator programs can only help a small number of graduates.

“Most of these are elite opportunities for individuals,” said Jeff Pokorak, vice provost for faculty and curriculum at Suffolk University in Boston, who favors incorporating the practical training the incubators provide into the law school curriculum.

The incubator programs vary greatly in the support they provide graduates and their expectations for pro-bono or low-fee work. At Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California, nine graduates have access to subsidized office space at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and are supposed to perform at least 300 hours of free legal service. The program, launched this year, includes training in marketing, managing office overhead and tax risks. Much of the funding for this year’s class has come from a grant obtained by the legal aid society, so the school’s contribution is only in the four figures, said Martin Pritikin, an associate dean who helps run the program.

Attorney Chris Markelz, who is in the legal incubator program run by Whittier Law School, poses for photos in the lobby area of his office, Wednesday, June 3, 2015, in Santa Ana, Calif. The incubators give new lawyers practical experience while providing legal services to people who otherwise would not be able to afford a lawyer. A tight job market for new lawyers and a push to make legal representation more affordable have prompted law schools in California and other states to fund startup law firms. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Attorney Chris Markelz is in the legal incubator program run by Whittier Law School. The incubators give new lawyers practical experience while providing legal services to people who otherwise would not be able to afford a lawyer. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

“Going out on your own is scary,” said Chris Markelz, a lawyer in Whittier’s program. “You have to pay your bills, you have to feed yourself.”

With the incubator’s help, Markelz has gone from meeting clients at the legal aid society offices to renting his own office space in less than a year as business has grown. He works on landlord-tenant disputes, charging as little as $75 an hour, but he also handles divorces, personal injuries and employee pay disputes.

Rutgers School of Law in New Jersey operates what could more accurately be described as a school-run law firm. Six graduates get $30,000 each from the university to take cases, including landlord-tenant disputes, grand theft, drugs, divorce and domestic violence. They charge clients a modest $50 an hour and funnel the money back to the school. They are considered students, so they can defer their loans and access health care through the university, said Andrew Rothman, an associate dean at the law school and the program’s managing attorney.

The program lost $100,000 in 2014 — its first year —, but is poised to make that up this year and plans to double its fellows in the next three years.

The startups and incubator programs arose in a tough job market. About 40 percent of all 2014 law graduates did not have full-time, long-term positions requiring bar passage as of March 15, 2015, according to the American Bar Association.

“The practice of law is changing,” Pritikin, the Whittier associate dean, said. “Law schools need to view themselves as having responsibility to their students even after they graduate to help them transition.”

Five San Francisco Bay Area law schools, including the University of California, Berkeley, are launching an incubator program next year. For the first six months, graduates must put in 20 hours of pro-bono work a week and charge low fees for half their cases. The low-fee requirement continues through the 2-year program.

“Truly what we hope is that many of them will make this their business model well after the program ends,” said Tiela Chalmers, chief executive officer of the Alameda County Bar Association who helped develop the program.

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