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September 24, 2008

"Pay Tuition, Then Pay For Experience?"


The Value Movement. As we were saying, we don't have all the answers. Maybe shortening law school to 3 or 4 semesters is one piece of the puzzle. We revisit the issue because growth and productivity by young lawyers who really want to be at their law firms and not just go through the motions is important for both junior lawyers and firms. So here's one small bite-sized thought at a time, lest some readers again become adrift from their moorings, get unhinged and blow tubes. Here's a reaction from The Legal Beat blog of Law.line, a CLE site:

Should recent law graduates have to pay law firms for the experience they receive?...

At first glance for any prospective law student, or current law student, this idea seems ludicrous. However, it is a notion that the United Kingdom has been practicing for a hundred and fifty years. Additionally, this is similar to the education structure we have in the United States for doctors. Some argue that if this concept was implemented, only those with a strong passion for law would seek to go to law school.

(Emphasis ours).

Currently, everyone is losing.

Clients are the biggest losers--if not victims. Clients in effect subsidize firms that retain high-priced but unhappy/unproductive associates who are not even likely to stay in their firms, and often serve to pad bills. The best clients do not need to pay high rates to cover "training overhead" for the very marginal (if any) value added by 1st/2nd year timekeepers. We can do better for clients.

If you are a Law Firm of any size: If you haven't heard, the markets worldwide are flirting with a recession. So why don't you guys get off your knees and keep/hire just the lawyers who really want to be there? You can't just wait until your clients complain; and your clients will complain, in any economy, once they realize increased value in young talent at law firms is possible, and that the current "talent sweepstakes" and associate system does not work for anyone. Forget for a moment "what the market will bear". You still have duties to your firm and to your clients to make hiring and retaining associates more efficient, and a better investment.

To Associates: If you hate what you're doing, plan to do something different as soon as you can. You still have options. You can get out of debt another way, and keep your sanity and self-respect. You obviously have the talent to accomplish that.

Posted by Holden Oliver (Kitzb├╝hel Desk) at September 24, 2008 12:00 AM


When associates start paying your firm to learn law working on client matters, will those amounts show up as a "credit" on client accounts? Just wondering to what extent your plan really puts clients first.

Posted by: Ed. at September 23, 2008 08:40 PM

no one needs the third year of law school. I spent mine third third year i borrowed outlines, skipped class (earned an AmJur in a labor law class I attended less than 20% of the time) and clerked for a two man personal injury firm 40 hours/week. Law school was cheap then (univ. Of cal $700/year). But I would gladly have paid the firm my tuition instead of the law school. I was practicing - not reviewing documents - and it was frankly thrilling. I agree with your suggestion now and did when I was a litigation partner but mostly recommended we hire only 3rd years letting the Skaddens train our associates for us. Not a starter. Firm failed.

Posted by: vickie at September 23, 2008 11:04 PM

In our firm, Ed., that already is, in effect, the case. First- and sometimes second-year associate time is written off, and shown, even if we could "get away" with charging it. Our clients assume that we pay competitive salaries; they know that we generally (i.e., almost always) hire people who have a choice to work at larger firms in order to compete for the work we do. They expect/want us to have "good" people. But we can't bring ourselves to do The Highly Ridiculous and charge them out at market rates. Dan (Hull) and Julie (McGuire) go over every bill, and fuss and worry over it.

Not sure, Ed., how every detail would play out. We'd like some calm ideas to flesh it out.

But in some cases, the associates would be paid something--just something more in line with what they are really worth, with a rate increase when and if they add value. If that doesn't happen quickly (minimum: within 18 months a significant plus rather than "a minus"), especially in a boutique firm, there are problems. In the meantime, they are "paralegals" with great promise.

Ironically, some of the best law students show very little promise for adding value in a decent amount of time. (They think they are "in school", turning in assignments for a grade, when we are really paying them to think on their own with clients in mind, and be proactive, on their first day.) Regardless of why that happens, the client should not expect any firm to carry that young lawyer. It's not fair to anyone.

Finally, we do get the occasional associate who thinks that their position is an "inalienable right" or, even worse, "just a job". You can see it inside a month, or even less time. They think that just graduating with good grades and being a lawyer makes them special. We refer them to that nice insurance defense firm or cookie cutter shop down the street.

Posted by: Holden Oliver at September 23, 2008 11:40 PM

Have you considered one of my favorite vetting techniques for determining potential in young attorney: Sending them to do night arraignment and interview clients in the holding cell in the bowels of the criminal courthouse. If they make it out alive, they have potential. If they don't, we claim not to know them. We never leave a paper trail.

Posted by: shg at September 24, 2008 09:37 AM

Umm where does the idea that this happens in the UK come from? Sure trainee solicitors have to do 2 years with a firm prior to becoming full fledged practising solicitors, but they are paid. Granted not a lot compared to the rates they are billed at, but no-one actively pays the employer. And there is the answer for the benefit to the firm - they are billed out at lower rate than assistant/associate solicitors, but a rate that much more than covers their pay.

But granted the US situation is different. The very idea that one goes straight from student to full blown lawyer is anathema to the UK.

Posted by: Nearly Legal at September 24, 2008 12:37 PM

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