Bringing specialist training to the 21st century legal market

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Published on 12/14/09

A recent survey by the National Association for Law Placement suggested that approximately 2 percent of 2008 law school graduates opened a solo practice within nine months of graduation.

According to the American Bar Association, there were more than 150,000 students enrolled in the country's 200 accredited law schools in the 2008-2009 academic year, and those schools handed out more than 40,000 J.D. degrees.

Most of those graduates, of course, have traditionally gone to existing firms rather than starting their own practices. But plenty of news stories have documented the fact that the rules of the game have changed in the worst job-search season for new lawyers in decades.

Some of the biggest firms in the country have canceled or drastically cut back their law school recruiting at campuses such as Georgetown, Northwestern and Yale, leaving students deep in debt for a degree that suddenly is less valuable. It is not surprising that such students might find starting a firm of their own to be attractive.

The flip side of the issue is that if starting a new firm is, in fact, a growing trend among recent graduates, one has to question how much and how well they understand what they're facing.

I've written before in this space that students come out of law school with little practical understanding of the business of law, whether that includes effective client service and law practice management techniques or basic knowledge about the operation of the firm as a business (budget, collections, profit/loss, etc.).

There is also the issue of technical competence at the law: In highly personal, difficult issues like bankruptcy or divorce or tax problems, what kind of representation will clients receive from young lawyers who are getting their on-the-job training this way?

Such concerns again illustrate how the entire concept of continuing legal education has to change. In many states, the practical skills that lawyers most need to run a practice are either not covered or actively eliminated as legitimate MCLE credits. They also happen to be skills that no law school faculty offers either.

Many lawyers — not just young ones — feel they have neither an efficient nor an effective way to learn how to build a better practice that better serves clients. But whatever makes a better lawyer benefits both the firm and its clients, whether it falls under a traditional CLE banner or not.

Already there are specialized certifications that state bar associations increasingly offer in certain practice specialties. Specialists and their clients do benefit in some way from the more intensive training, but this really is just a matter of degree from the typical CLE requirements.

What if bar associations took the principle further by offering to lawyers specialist certifications in law practice management skills? How is this different from the specialized training that many lawyers have received by earning their CPA or MBA?

These questions are important and need to be answered affirmatively and creatively if CLE training is to meet the real needs of lawyers in today's marketplace.

In next week's column, I will review the results of an attorney survey from my LawBiz blog regarding not only CLE specialist education, but lawyers' views on the larger issue of on-the-job training of new lawyers.

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