Monday, August 22, 2011

What if Law Schools Opened Their Own Law Firms?

University of Maryland School of Law Professor Robert Rhee

University of Maryland School of Law Professor Robert Rhee

Law schools have been pummeled with criticism for not producing practice-ready attorneys, so two law professors have come up with a novel fix: Law schools should operate their own law firms.

The school-owned firms would provide a training ground for recent graduates, but would function much like a normal firm, Brooklyn Law School Professor Bradley Borden and University of Maryland School of Law Professor Robert Rhee wrote in an article titled "The Law School Firm." The piece will appear in a forthcoming issue of the South Carolina Law Review.

Borden and Rhee acknowledged that their idea constitutes a "radical" change from the existing law school model, but they contend that these firms would help recent graduates gain the skills they need to be successful at little expense — and possibly a profit — to law schools.

The firms would be entities distinct from the law schools, and would be professionally managed and generate revenue, although they would be operated as nonprofits. Senior attorneys would be hired to oversee the firms' practice areas, and recent law school graduates would spend fixed periods, perhaps three or six years, at the firm before moving on.

The concept is similar to that of judicial clerkships, Rhee said, in that freshly minted attorneys would spend a fixed amount of time at the firm and face no stigma when they leave. Being in an actual, functioning law firm would offer a far more immersive learning experience than students could find in the classroom or even in a law school clinic, he said.

"We see the benefit of having the law's equivalent of a teaching hospital," Rhee and Borden wrote. "Senior attorneys in a law school firm would practice law, model best practices for junior attorneys, help train them, and possibly work in collaboration with full-time faculty on research problems that arise in the practice of law."

For clients, these firms would offer low-cost legal representation in practice areas underserved by the existing lawyer population, Rhee said. Low costs would be possible because the junior attorneys would earn salaries similar to those in public interest law. The firms would place less pressure to bill on attorneys than do large firms, and would designate time for lawyer training.

"[Junior attorneys] will be expected to do client work but will also learn how to be a successful attorney," the professors wrote. "They will learn how to develop a book of business and make contacts in the community that will benefit them as practicing attorneys."

After their stint at the firms, attorneys would go on to another firm or star their own firms, Borden said.

Any excess revenue generated by a firm could go back to the law school, or be designated for attorney training. Law schools could use a firm to transition to a two-year Juris Doctor program, similar to the lawyer training model in the United Kingdom, Rhee and Borden wrote. The firm also could provide a laboratory to experiment and learn more about attorney training techniques, they said.

Many regulatory issues would need to be worked out, the professors wrote: How would the ownership arrangements work? How revenue would be taxed?

Additionally, the American Bar Association would have to modify its accreditation standards if law schools wanted to move to a two-year model, Rhee said. But he and Borden wanted to put forth the concept to spur discussion.

"It's radical, but then it's not radical," Rhee said. "It's only radical because law schools are so set in their ways."

This article originally was published by The National Law Journal, a Texas Lawyer affiliate.

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