The biggest reason new law school graduates hesitate to hang their own shingle is that they know what they don’t know. The crippling intimidation of starting your own practice derives largely from the axiom that if you are going to practice law, you should probably know something about the law. It’s no secret that law schools don’t adequately train students to practice law on graduation day plus one. So every year, fall rolls around and you’ve got a large population of new, unemployed and under-trained lawyers who want to practice law, but won’t because they feel like they don’t know how.

Unfortunately, since the legal profession adapts to new trends about as awkwardly as your mom adapts to Facebook, new lawyers have woefully few resources for helping them learn how to be a new lawyer.

CLE: Complicated Legal Education

When I eventually got the message from the job market that said “look … it’s not you, it’s me,” I decided to start my own practice. So I made a crude checklist. The first thing on my checklist—I kid you not—was “learn how to practice law” (note: I’m a smart-ass even on personal checklists). So I asked several senior attorneys how I should go about learning the substantive aspects of my chosen field of law and one answer that I always got was: go to a lot of continuing legal education programs. And I listened to these senior attorneys because, hey, they’re old and know what they are talking about. As it turns out, it wasn’t great advice.

Listen, I’m a reasonably smart person. I can correctly answer like two-thirds of the questions on the first round of “JEOPARDY!” No biggie. But I have never felt like a bigger idiot than when I went to some estate planning CLEs. And don’t get me wrong, CLEs are really useful tools for a good chunk of practicing attorneys. But when you are a new attorney who knows next to nothing about the field in which you are practicing, they are, at their worst, cold-blooded and unhinged confidence-shattering machines. CLE presenters operate on the assumption that the audience is composed largely of seasoned attorneys that know their practice areas inside and out, but just need to brush up on some small aspects of, say, distressed commercial assets. That is simply not the case. It may be that a lot of experienced attorneys go to CLEs, but I think it would be difficult to argue that they are the attorneys most in need of legal training.

The “target market” is different

The demographic of who is currently in need of practical legal education is very different now from what it was several years ago. Of course there have always been new and undereducated attorneys, but several phenomena have shifted the target market for legal training. First, law schools are pumping out more graduates now than ever before. Second, law schools don’t teach students how to practice law. Third, there are many fewer jobs.

It used to be that new lawyers cut their teeth at a firm right out of law school, and that’s where they would learn how to practice. But those opportunities, in large part, aren’t available to new graduates. So if new attorneys are going to grow professionally, they will have to learn the substantive aspects of the law somewhere else. Obviously, there are several ways that new attorneys can learn about their fields of practice. “Learn by doing” has been my mantra thus far, and volunteering your services can also be a very effective way to learn how to practice. But given that there is an established program that offers legal training courses, you would think that there would be more new attorneys walking out of CLEs as better practitioners.

Dumb it down

I have been to several CLEs where I wanted to ask the TV the same thing that Homer Simpson once asked: “Um, can you repeat the part of the stuff where you said all about the…things?” There is an assumption made by most attorneys who present at CLEs that their audience is at essentially the same competence level. That assumption is what causes a good amount of the confusion on the faces of new attorneys like me.

Put bluntly, there are wasted opportunities at CLEs and other seminars across the country. New and inexperienced attorneys really want to learn about the fields they are entering, but have difficulty because the training industry assumes that its audience is an already experienced one. Until the established legal training complex adapts to its customers, however, new lawyers will continue to struggle to find ways to learn about their fields of practice.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wellohorld/3050608789/)