J. Nick Augustine J.D. is the principal of ALR/PRA, Inc., a full service law practice management agency. Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations and marketing. Nick also shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.
Apprenticeships are common in many professions. Training the skills needed to practice a chosen trade requires on-the-job experience in addition to formal education. Prior to the establishment of accreditation procedures for law schools, the lack of formalized legal training was covered in clerkships where apprentices learned from seasoned attorneys and slowly earned more responsibility and control over their work.
Several law firms are considering and implementing apprenticeships for first-year associates who didn’t have extensive clerking experience during law school. These associates may be paid less during their first two years of work; however, they are closely supervised and taught how to handle client matters by senior attorneys at the firm, and become trusted and profitable attorneys in less than average time.
Today, in this tough economy, there are many young lawyers who cannot find jobs and consider launching solo practices. While many newly licensed attorneys have access to the proper legal resources to research, draft pleadings, conduct proper court appearances and hearings. What the resources cannot teach however; is experience, and knowing what to do when your client, opposing counsel or facts take an unexpected turn into uncharted territory.
In and around bar associations and law schools the formal requirement for apprenticeships for young lawyers is a topic of debate. Proponents push for a mandatory apprenticeship requirement similar to a residency in medicine. Many of the young attorneys are likely to respond favorably as well, as the stress of decision making and strategy easily overwhelm a young practitioner. Critics of formal programs may stress the inequity of reduced initial salaries while law school tuition continues to increase.
If I were graduating from law school today and couldn’t find a job I would consider launching solo and establishing an informal referral-based apprenticeship with a seasoned practitioner. The rules in most jurisdictions require lawyers receiving referrals to 1) disclose that transaction to the client, and 2) monitor the case and remain some level of responsibility. The case monitoring aspect really opens the door to a mentoring relationship.
I would first cover my fixed expenses with a “day job” or some part-time but steady income stream if I didn’t have savings to pay the bills while hanging my shingle. Next, I would compose a letter to known attorneys who may have more work than they would like but not enough to take on a full-time associate. That lawyer may turn over some files or send incoming referrals my way, at which time a standard letter would disclose the referral fee paid and the nature of the working relationship.
There is no substitute for experience and advice of seasoned practitioners in any profession. Informal apprenticeships present a win-win scenario for the mentor attorney and their protégé attorney.