Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Are Lawyer Residencies The Future of Legal Education?

North Carolina Legal JobIt seems everyone has an idea on how to do a better job of preparing new lawyers for the realities of practicing law.

A trending topic: lawyer residency programs along the lines of the medical residencies.

Proponents say the current method of training lawyers – three years of classroom education followed by crippling debt, dismal job prospects and little if any actual experience with clients – is not working.

“Let’s scrap this system,” says a recent New York Times op-ed. “We need, at its entry level, the equivalent of a medical residency. Law school graduates would practice for two years or so, under experienced supervision, at reduced hourly rates; repaying their debts could be suspended, as it is for medical residents.”

The author of the editorial – John J. Farmer – is Dean of Rutgers Law School, former attorney general of New Jersey and senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission. So he’s got street cred.

He thinks a lawyer residency program would benefit recent graduates, firms seeking new talent, and the many people who can’t presently afford legal services:

“[F]irms would be able to hire more lawyers, at the lower rates, and give talented graduates of less prestigious institutions a chance to shine. The firms, at the end of the residencies, could then select whom to keep. Even for those who don’t make the cut, the residency will have provided valuable experience. The law firms should be required, under this proposal, to offer stipends to help those residents who don’t make the cut but have debt burdens.

“In theory, there would be no restriction on the types of matters residents could undertake.” He writes. “At Rutgers, where I teach, students in clinics work on commercial transactions as well as criminal cases. Many states restrict the activities of law students; but residents, as new lawyers, would be able to litigate and give legal advice without restriction.”

Dean Farmer is not just blowing smoke. Rutgers is moving forward with a postgraduate, nonprofit law clinic to be staffed by recent graduates.

All the way across the country, Arizona State University is trying something similar. The dean of ASU/Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law said he was inspired by a visit to the Mayo Clinic, where he saw medical residents getting hands-on experience and continuing education at the same time.

The ASU program is in creating a nonprofit, teaching “law firm.” When it is fully up and running, the firm will use half a dozen experienced attorneys as “partners” to oversee the work of 15 to 30 recent law grads. Residents will be paid and receive benefits. Over the course of two years, they will cycle through different practice areas – bankruptcy, family law and corporate organization.

Dean Farmer says lawyer residencies are a win for everybody.

“The greatest benefit, however, would be the recovery of an ethic of legal practice that has been greatly diminished,” he writes. “At its best, law protects the vulnerable, safeguards liberty and serves the public. By embracing a residency model, the profession can rebalance the tension between profit and service.”

For more information:

Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He likes sunshine and azaleas. Contact, phone 919-619-2441.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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