A Teaching Hospital for Law School Graduates

The Edilex law blog recently pointed me to an interesting article in the New York Times on a law school in Arizona that is opening up a law firm to place its graduates.

After a visit to the Mayo Clinic, the dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University decided that there was a need for a “teaching hospital” for law school graduates to gain experience and learn their trade while being assisted by experienced lawyers. Thus, this summer, Arizona State is setting up a non-profit law firm for some of its graduates to work under seasoned lawyers and be paid to provide a wide range of services at relatively low cost to the residents of Phoenix.

This “in-school” law firm will operate the same way that hospital residency programs train newly minted medical doctors. The firm aims to eventually employ about 30 recent graduates. They will be allowed to stay on for two years with the option to extend for a third year, but they can leave at any time if they secure a long-term job.

It is important to note that the state of Arizona lets law school students take the Arizona bar exam in their third year of law school rather than making them wait until after graduation. So this set-up works well for this law school. In Canada, lawyers must wait until they graduate to take their bar exams.

This “non-profit” law firm plans to bill Americans who live in Phoenix and use their services for about $125 an hour.

The objective of setting up such a firm is not just to provide work experience to new lawyers, but also to find a solution to two very important problems: that law school graduates are heavily indebted and have trouble finding jobs/clients, and that a vast number of Americans are unable to afford a lawyer and obtain access to justice.

It seems that other schools have had the same inspiration.

As of late last year, Pace Law School in White Plains, Arizona, hosts a “community law practice.” The office employs four graduates to serve the region.

There’s a pilot program at the University of California that “will place some third-year students into offices like the public defender’s for full-time training on the understanding that the next year those students will be employed there for small salaries. The program is called Lawyers for America, a conscious echo of Teach for America, in which high-achieving college graduates work in low-income neighborhood schools.”

Several others, including City University of New York and Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, offer office space and mentors to recent graduates.

I do applaud these endeavours, and I imagine they will help a lucky few new graduates obtain a job, but what worries me is that they will be much lower-paying jobs than law graduates typically aim for.

Another Times article notes, “when the numbers are crunched, studies find that most law students need to earn around $65,000 a year to get the upper hand on their debt.”

In addition, $125 an hour is still quite high and not a fee I believe many Americans can afford in these tough economic times. Will such an in-school legal practice solve the access to justice problem? I don’t think so.

To me the most important concept coming out of these endeavours is that a “teaching practice” where law school graduates can gain experience and learn their trade while being assisted by experienced lawyers will provide a solution to a bigger problem: that of untrained and unprepared lawyers opening up solo law firms because they cannot find firms to hire them or provide them with a good articling position.

A program like that will provide recent graduates with much needed training and a good foundation that will serve them in their future career. Honestly I think all law schools should do it. But is it enough to offer training and experience, if the services these practices offer will cost the same as external law practices?

There is no doubt a need for accessible and low-cost legal services. I recently wrote about a new sort of experiment in legal services: a retail store that sells books, holds classes and connects customers with attorneys for legal advice. If there is a market for this type of service, then surely legal “teaching hospitals” could fill a number of gaps in the legal market. But can they help low-income individuals while also offering lawyers a fair wage (e.g., enough to help defray the costs of their student loans)?

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Comments

  1. Of course, Osgoode had this idea back in the 70s, when it set up Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto, the first of what became 70+ legal aid clinics. PCLS is still going strong and still acting as a “teaching hospital” for law students.

  2. It’s remarkable how often somebody claims to have invented a new, improved, better, etc. wheel, isn’t it? (Let’s hope it’s not Paddy Chayefsky’s “Hospital” the schools end up providing.)

  3. and many if not all of Ontario’s law faculties have a student legal aid service that gives practice experience to some degree, for the students who choose to do it. It does not pay down the debt, but it teaches some other practical things – including sore things about access to justice.