The Law School Firm

The American Bar Association‘s Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 reads:

Client-Lawyer Relationship
Rule 1.1 Competence
A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

And yet, every six months law schools churn out graduates, who receive the rubber-stamp of their state bars, that lack the legal knowledge, skill, and ability to prepare a reasonable representation.


Everyone that goes to law school, and works for a while as a lawyer, knows that law school does very little in terms of preparing you to actually practice law. Sure, law students read a lot of old cases and develop some basic legal analysis skills. But when it comes to practical practice knowledge, except perhaps for basic Trial Advocacy, Research and Writing, or Clinical instruction, most law schools simply aren’t in the business of developing market-ready lawyers.

Can they be? Should they be?

Two pioneering law professors, Brooklyn Law School’s Bradley Borden, and Maryland Law School’s Robert Rhee, think so. They have come up with an idea: The Law School Firm (LSF) (available for download from the Social Science Research Network).

The Proposal

I encourage you to download the paper. Here are some highlights:

  • Law schools establish law firms that are separate and distinct from the law schools.
  • The LSF would be a professionally-managed, revenue-generating, non-profit law firm.
  • The LSF would hire several senior attorneys, each to manage a different practice group.
  • Senior attorneys would be experienced with business-development and management skills, a public-service mentality, and commitment to the profession.
  • The LSF would hire more experienced attorneys to work under the practice-group managers, service clients, participate in business development, and train ?resident? or ?provisional? attorneys.

The traditional passage from law school graduate to market-ready lawyer usually involves getting hired as an associate and working either in a quasi-mentorship, getting buried under documents without much instruction from above, or some form of baptism by fire.

However, with the growing glut of new lawyers and poor economic environment, getting “picked-up” to begin training to become a real lawyer is more and more difficult. Which has resulted in some law school graduates, albeit licensed to practice law school graduates, practicing law before they’ve had the opportunity to evolve into market-ready lawyers.

A Solution?

Could the law firm school work to solve this problem? Perhaps. It seems to work in medicine with teaching hospitals. But what is the end result? To me, it seems that we will just have more prepared unemployed lawyers. Sure, some of those with an entrepreneurial spirit may be better equipped to forge ahead and hang out their own shingle. But many others, while armed with more practical practice knowledge, will still have to flip burgers (not that there is anything wrong with flipping burgers, just that it doesn’t require a law degree).

Furthermore, do law schools have enough incentive for making this change. The profs. suggest that this could be a new source of revenue for schools and a value add that could boost a schools U.S. News ranking. I suppose this will primarily depend on the quality and cost of legal services delivered by the LFS.

Nonetheless, I agree with the professors when they write:

Law school education and law practice are more disconnected than they should be. It is unfortunate that the legal academy cannot match the medical and business academies in providing practice-ready professionals.

Maybe someday we will see HLS amend its motto to Veritas et Paratus.

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  • Will Hornsby

    The City University of New York has been doing this for years. In the 1990s it established the Community Legal Resource Network to foster graduates who began practices in low and working class neighborhoods. The Network provides access to research tools, CLE, mentors and practive management resources. A few years ago, CUNY set up a law firm in Manhatten that is an incubator for new grads. Fred Rooney has been the architect of these programs and is working with other schools and bars to expand them. Hopefully the
    “pioneering” law professors who are advancing this in theory will soon become familar with the programs that have rolled out years ago and work to expand them in their venues. Details about CUNY’s work are at http://www.law.cuny.edu/clinics/JusticeInitiatives/Community.html.

    • Will, thanks for bringing CUNY’s program to my attention. At a quick glance, CLRN appears to me to be more like a traditional clinic (which many schools provide) and less like what the law school firm profs are proposing.

      Don’t get me wrong, I think law school clinics have been a great service to the public, as well as, as a reasonably effective incubator for law students in some practice areas.

      Seems to me that what the LSF proposes would greatly expand the areas of practice available to students, and changing some of the law school culture and expectation about transitioning from law school graduate to “market-ready” lawyer.

      Is CLRN a viable revenue generator for CUNY?

      • Will Hornsby

        Gyi, the CUNY model is by no means a traditional law school clinic. The Community Legal Resource Network and the incubator are dedicated to CUNY grads, practicing lawyers, not law students. The participants may not be graduating “practice ready,” but are placed in situations that foster their ability to practice and develop caseloads. The incubator in particular is a NYC law firm where the participating lawyers reside for 18 months, develop their practice skills and caseloads, then are expected to spin off into their own practices, taking their cases with them. They are paid a small stipend while doing this. I know the projects are subsidized, but don’t know the financial details.

        Thanks for advancing the dialogue on this. Hopefully we will see substantial changes in the role of law schools as they prepare their students to be able to practice law. We are beginning to see bar associations take similar steps. For example, the Columbus Ohio bar association has established an incubator. See http://www.cbalaw.org/resources/jobs/job-seekers/columbus-bar-inc.php

        • Will,

          Thanks for taking the time to educate me on this. I am curious which practice areas for which this model works best and whether the participants have successfully spun-off with clients.

  • It’s misleading to compare this proposal to teaching hospitals because all medical school graduates are required to serve a one-year residency before taking their final licensing exam for general practice. The analog would be all lawyers serving a year under the supervision of senior attorneys before taking the bar exam.

    • Which, by the way, I don’t think is such a bad idea…

  • Mr. Hornsby is eliding some key aspects of the CUNY program that limit both its scalability into a generalized model and its attractiveness to recent graduates and solos. The Incubator for Justice was designed specifically to train lawyers planning to practice community law in poor and disadvantaged communities. Hence, the program’s mentoring focuses on areas like immigration law, landlord-tenant law, elder law, labor and employment law.

    It’s also important to note that there are only eight participants at a time.

    The CLRN programs are excellent case studies for addressing access to justice issues, but it’s a stretch to assert they can be the basis for the wholesale reforms required.

    • Will Hornsby

      Your points are worth noting. I was originally just trying to make the point the model advanced by the professors in the post is not without precedent. I don’t suggest that CUNY has the exclusive blueprint for this, but that it has been working on models to help new grads become successful practitioners. There is room for variations on the theme that would take the law school firm into any number of practice areas. In this respect it may be like the evolution of law school clinics. When I was a clinical student over 30 years ago, there were about 12 of us out of a class of 400 who participated. Today I suspect a high percentage of law students participate in a clinical experience before graduating. Maybe at some point down the line, far more new lawyers will have the opportunity to participate in an incubator or similar jump-start model.