Despite the desolate job market, many of my recent-grad friends have yet to make the plunge into hanging up their own shingle. For some, they are working crap-law jobs and biding their time until something better comes along. Others are still mailing out resumes en masse and hoping for the best. For those who did take the plunge, one has been doing general practice for a few years and is thriving. Another friend is just getting started, but his firearms law firm (practice area envy!) sounds both promising and exciting.
The reasons why new lawyers are reluctant to jump in to small firming are obvious: getting clients, understanding balance sheets and deciphering tax requirements are all terrifying. Beyond that, most law schools just don't prepare students for running a firm. Some would argue that schools don't prepare them for practicing law, though that particular concern is slowly eroding as more schools add practice-based education and clinical opportunities.
The New York Times highlights a few of these efforts, such as Hastings' Lawyers for America initiative and trend of academic credit for externships. They also point out another more promising trend: the small firm incubator.
The highlight of the story is Arizona State's grand opening of a nonprofit law firm. Though other schools have already undertaken similar-yet-smaller initiatives, this is believed to be the largest, at 30 attorney-graduates. These attorneys will get on-the-job training while providing relatively low-cost legal services to the Phoenix community, with an emphasis on military veterans, Native Americans, and other underserved populations. They'll also do legal work for the school itself.
It sounds promising, and a lot less daunting than 30 recent grads opening firms without the guidance of experienced senior partners or mentors. Still, it has not been met with unqualified acceptance. A few similar programs at other schools point out that the hourly rate -- $125 -- is more than the poor can afford and less than the break-even rate. Others call it a ploy to improve employment numbers, and by extension, the school's ranking.
Our take? Rankings be damned. We've all seen the good that comes from nonprofit law school clinics. Imagine what full-time lawyers can do with the school's support. And though the hourly rate isn't exactly free, it isn't nearly as high as many private firms would charge. They may not be giving legal services away, but they are certainly making them more affordable.
For grads employed by the school-firm, this is a great situation. They get to learn the practice of law, in a teaching hospital-like setting, and are being prepared for careers in small or solo firms. After a few years in the incubator, they will likely be able to transition into their own practices, with experience, and with a lot less trepidation over malpractice, finding clients, or reading balance sheets.
How about you, dear unemployed graduate? Are you thinking of starting your own firm? If so, head over to our Strategist blog, where we discuss a lot of the things you'll need to know, from taxes to time management, in our Small Firm Startup series.