Accelerator-to-Practice Program

Issue March 2014 March 2014 By Jeffrey J. Pokorak, Ilene Seidman and Gerald M. Slater

A curriculum-based access to justice initiative at Suffolk University Law School
Law school applications are the lowest they've been in 30 years. Law school enrollment is down significantly from last year, and analysts see the trend continuing for the 2014-2015 academic year.1 The lack of current job opportunities and the potential for massive student loan payments have discouraged many from entering the legal profession.2 At the same time, many people suffer harms due to a lack of affordable legal services. Progress in achieving necessary access to legal assistance relies on an influx of new, talented and energetic lawyers.3

For many decades, law schools distanced themselves from the practice of law and operated in a world separate from the legal marketplace. Law school education mainly focused on legal doctrine and theory, while undervaluing acquisition of the skills and professional values necessary to sustain successful practices. The past practice of the bar and law firms to compensate for this deficit by offering post-graduate apprenticeships is largely over. Clients are no longer willing or able to pay large sums for the work of untrained junior attorneys. Simultaneously, the justice system has become increasingly inaccessible to low- and moderate-income people. While statistics show that fewer jobs exist for new lawyers, the need for affordable legal services is growing exponentially. There is great dissonance between the jobs law schools expect students to perform upon graduation, the actual availability of these jobs, and the needs of people for competent law school graduates to represent them.

Several structural aspects of the legal education's legal services continuum have combined to produce both a "practice gap" and a "justice gap." These include the legal academy's limitations in instruction in the practice of law, serious disruptions in the legal marketplace, and chronic insufficient funding for provision of legal services to middle-income and indigent people. The practice gap is the distance between the skills and knowledge students need to competently practice law and the abilities they actually possess at graduation. The justice gap is the chasm between the legal needs of people and the availability of competent (and compensated) lawyers to represent them. A third gap - the "market gap" - is the widening difference that exists between the legal academy and the legal profession. This market gap is where most law schools currently exist: outside of, and independent from, the economics of the profession. These three gaps have resulted in the separation of legal education from legal practice, the realities of the justice system and the economic realities of modern law practice.

Suffolk University Law School is working to introduce a new model of legal education that accelerates a student's progression from novice to practitioner within the three years the student attends law school. To do so, the school will expand the traditional law school curriculum to include required instruction in 21st century business competencies beginning in the first year, as well as imbedding a fee generating law practice within the law school as part of an expanded experiential program. The purpose of the program will be to prepare students to join or start sustainable small practices serving average-income clients. The Accelerator-to-Practice Program (Accelerator Program) model may ultimately serve as a basis for the redesign of legal education.

Over 70 percent of lawyers in private practice in the United States are in firms of 20 or fewer attorneys.4 Nearly half of all lawyers in the United States are solo practitioners.5 Although most law schools send a majority of their students into small and solo practices, much of traditional law school education is designed to train associates in corporate firms, with minor curricular deference to public interest and government practice. Although many of these attorneys choose solo or small firm practice intentionally, current economic conditions are adding to the growing ranks of legal entrepreneurs. These graduates need client-based lawyering experience during law school, as well as courses in business planning, marketing, client generation and retention, technology-based practice systems, billing and attorney's fees practice, fee-generating and fee-shifting statutes, and other courses related to the host of issues that attach to solo or small firm practice.6

Low- and moderate-income individuals cannot afford to obtain the services needed to confront the legal problems of everyday life. These problems include maintaining a home in times of financial crisis; family disruption and death; unsafe or unlawful leased homes; unfair, unhealthy, and discriminatory work environments; and unlawful consumer practices.7 Innovative law practices are demonstrating that lawyers can earn a living representing clients in the legal problems of everyday life through representation in fee-shifting cases, where government fees are available, and in contingency fee matters.8 Fee-shifting provisions might also support the development of niche practices in myriad specialties, such as environmental law and corporate accountability litigation.9 Combined with available new technologies, such practices can be supportable and profitable.

These three gaps - the market gap, the practice gap, and the justice gap - define the current crisis in legal education, while also revealing a practical solution.

Accelerator-to-Practice


Students in the Accelerator Program will be admitted directly into a program that includes specialized professional development and law practice management instruction with three successive practical training experiences. Such a market-based reorientation of the law school curriculum is one way to move legal education from crisis to solution. It will enable law school graduates to find or create gainful employment, servicing the unmet market for affordable legal services and meeting the demands of evolving modern practice.

The Accelerator Program has four essential components that respond to, and integrate the law school in, the legal market: (1) a professional development and skills curriculum that expands the required instruction to enable students to master a wider range of competencies; (2) robust training in law practice technology; (3) experiential training through supervised internships and clinical experience; and (4) career development and practice supports to assist graduates as they enter the legal services market. Each component is integrated into a full-time, three-year program that includes two summers and a significant portion of their final year immersed in supervised practical training.

A. Expanded Professional Development & Skills Curriculum

Law school graduates are mostly unprepared for modern practice.10 This is due, in part, to the lack of required instruction in key competencies required of lawyers, including11 the business of law and law practice economics, legal technologies, project management, organizational behavior, business communication, professional identity and networks, and client-centered customer service. Many employers now require job applicants to possess these competencies. The lack of systemic education in these areas results in the paradox of graduates who arrive at a job required to possess the very skills and knowledge they hope that work experience will provide.

In the Accelerator Program, upper-level required classes include Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines, in which students build software applications for concrete exposure to legal knowledge engineering; Hit the Ground Running, in which students create a business, marketing and technology plan for a small or solo practice; Becoming a Twenty-First Century Lawyer, in which students learn lawyer pricing to the market, craft an online presence, build a low cost and/or virtual practice and the tenets of high quality client service; Law Practice Technology, in which students use existing legal technology in simulated client exercises; Law of Attorney's Fees and Costs, in which students learn practice in areas of representation in fee-shifting cases; Legal Problems of Everyday Life, in which students explore the legal needs of average-income people and the role of the small and solo firm bar in expanding access to justice; Project Management for Lawyers, in which students learn how process improvement and project management tools apply to the legal profession to increase the probability of successful outcomes; and other traditional offerings like Non-Profit Corporations, Administrative Law, Trial Advocacy and Alternative Dispute Resolution. This expanded curriculum will be timed to help students integrate knowledge with their development as practitioners as they proceed through a series of practical legal experiences.

B. Technological Training and Innovation

The ABA recently amended the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to emphasize that "a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology."12 Competent lawyers need to possess a sound understanding of law practice technology.13 This development also holds the promise of making legal services more efficient, affordable and accessible. For example, the Legal Services Corporation sponsors technology initiative grants specifically for this purpose,14 and held a summit to explore how technology can expand access to justice.15

The Accelerator Program will promote the use of technologies in practice and teach students how to use current technologies and to be life-long learners and innovators in legal technology use. Suffolk Law's new Institute for Law Practice Technology and Innovation will ensure that our graduates not only meet, but exceed, this new practice standard.16 Accelerator Program graduates will be able to employ, create and take full advantage of available technology to create successful careers in the 21st century legal marketplace.

C. Experiential Training through Internships & Clinical Courses

Recognition that the market requires law graduates to arrive at work with practice-based skills is evidenced by the growth of experiential programs and opportunities at most law schools.17 However, the common lack of pedagogically sound integration of experiential and classroom instruction deprives graduates of the complete education they need to actually do what lawyers do. Post-graduate incubator programs are one attempt to address this deficiency; but the collapse of the apprenticeship model in the market and the requirements of modern practice suggest the best scalable model is to imbed a sustainable law practice within the law school.

Suffolk Law will create a non-profit entity to provide legal services to average income individuals and families, while teaching students how to engage in the skilled, ethical, reflective and sustainable practice of law (the "Accelerator Practice"). Unlike other law school clinics, the Accelerator Clinic will provide fee-for-services replicating successful legal business models that focus on alternate fee structures and cases which themselves generate attorneys' fees and costs. Case selection and practice-based decision modeling will be a focus of the program. Case selections, outcomes and client satisfaction will be rigorously studied to offer students the opportunity to learn techniques to assess both the value to clients and the organization's bottom line. Student learning will include other practice-management tools in accounting and billing, marketing, external controls (financial auditing and effectiveness assessments) and other business competencies. Therefore, through the Accelerator Clinic, students will learn a replicable model for building a sustainable and profitable practice.The Accelerator Program will provide students with a cumulative series of grounding course work and practical work experiences each year, including capstone employment in Suffolk's Accelerator Practice, to prepare students to be competent practitioners upon graduation. In addition to other experiential instruction (simulations or projects) in required courses, students will complete an externship or residency in solo or small private practice in the summer between their first and second year of law school, be employed in the Law School's Accelerator or in a solo or small practice in the summer between their second and third year, and practice in the Accelerator throughout their third year. The completion of expanded curricular requirements combined with successive practical experiences will prepare students to satisfy the market demand for practice- and client-ready graduates.

D. Career Development & Practice Supports

The Accelerator-to-Practice Program will be supported by legal and career development professionals through individual counseling, development of alumni mentors and networks, and recruitment of solo and small practice practitioners qualified to supervise interns and interested in hiring graduates as part of firm succession planning.

Practitioners who hire students and program alums will be provided with free continuing legal education courses. Additionally, this networked group will be offered expert assistance in assessing and improving their law-practice business models, improving their technology support systems and creating a succession plan.
All graduates will also benefit from school-sponsored practice supports, including consultative services, trainings and access to a web-based portal for peer consultation, referral opportunities and online practice guides and document libraries.

CONCLUSION


Law students should have the training and experience they need to practice successfully and profitably when they graduate from law school. Through its Accelerator Program, Suffolk hopes to demonstrate a method and a mode to meet that goal.

This article is a version of an article published at 43 Wash. U.J.L. & Pol'y (2013) at 59, and is printed here with the permission of that journal.

  1. Catherine Ho, Law School Applications Continue To Slide, WASH. POST, June 2, 2013, vailable at http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-02/business/39697850_1_american-bar-association-accredited-law-school-legal-job-market.
  2. Id. See, e.g., David Segal, Is Law School a Losing Game?, N.Y TIMES, Jan. 8, 2011, available at www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/business/09law.html?pagewanted=all
  3. See, e.g., Equal Justice Works, New Report Suggests Ways to Fix Legal Education, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT (Apr. 24, 2013), http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/student-loan-ranger/2013/04/24/new-report-suggests-ways-to-fix-legal-education (citing the lack of affordable legal services for the underprivileged as integral to legal education reform). See also Deanell Reece Tacha, No Law Student Left Behind, 24 STAN. L. & POL'Y REV. 353, 372-73 (2013). "When we find these new models for connecting new lawyers with the pressing legal needs of so many Americans, we will have risen to the high calling of our profession." Id.at 373.
  4. ABA Serves Solo and Small-Firm Lawyers With New Online Resource Center, AM. BAR ASS'N, www.abanow.org/2012/01/aba-serves-solo-and-small-firm-lawyers-with-new-online-resource-center/ (last visited July 1, 2013).
  5. Id. "It is estimated that the United States has about 435,000 solo law practitioners (comprising about 48 percent of private-practice lawyers)." Id.
  6. See generally, Gary A. Munneke, Managing A Law Practice: What You Need To Learn In Law School, 30 PACE L. REV. 1207 (2010); Jay Pinkert, Digital Immigrants, Digital Natives, and Emerging Opportunities In Legal Technology, 74 TEX. B.J. 564, 564 (2011).
  7. William E. Hornsby, Jr., Gaming The System: Approaching 100% Access To Legal Services Through Online Games, 88 CHI.-KENT L. REV. 917, 923 (2013).
  8. Leslie C. Levin, Pro Bono Publico In A Parallel Universe: The Meaning Of Pro Bono In Solo And Small Law Firms, 37 HOFSTRA L. REV. 699, 729 (2009).
  9. Scott L. Cummings, The Politics Of Pro Bono, 52 UCLA L. REV. 1, 132-33 (2004).
  10. John McKay, Un-Apologizing For Context and Experience In Legal Education, 45 CREIGHTON L. REV. 853, 853 (2012).
  11. Ryan Patrick Alford, How Do You Trim The Seamless Web? Considering The Unintended Consequences Of Pedagogical Alterations, 77 U. CIN. L. REV. 1273, 1283 (2009).
  12. MODEL RULES OF PROF'L CONDUCT R. 1.1 cmt. 8 (2012).
  13. Steven C. Bennett, Teaching Technology Skills To Lawyers, NAT'L L. J., Jan. 20, 2006, available at www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1137665109054 (noting that "law students and attorneys who take the time to stay on top of legal technology have the best chances for success in the brave new world to come).
  14. Technology Initiative Grants, LEGAL SERV. CORP., http://tig.lsc.gov/ (last visited Sept. 23, 2013).
  15. Tech Summit Spurs Ideas for Expanding Access to Justice, LEGAL SERV. CORP., www.lsc.gov/media/news-items/2012/tech-summit-spurs-ideas-expanding-access-justice (last visited Sept. 23, 2013).
  16. Law School to Promote Lawyers' Technological Competence through Online Audit Tool, SUFFOLK UNIV. NEWS, July 19, 2013, www.suffolk.edu/news/19391.php #.Ujngkn-nJ8E.
  17. Michele Mekel, Putting Theory Into Practice: Thoughts From The Trenches On Developing A Doctrinally Integrated Semester-In-Practice Program In Health Law And Policy, 9 IND. HEALTH L. REV. 503, 506 (2012).
  18. In this article, "Accelerator" refers to the third-year capstone in-house law firm where students will participate, as student lawyers, in a sustainable, nonprofit fee shifting and contingency fee practice. The Accelerator will represent clients of low- to modest-incomes who would not otherwise have access to legal representation. The "Accelerator-to-Practice" is the name of the entire three-year program (which culminates in third-year practice in the Accelerator) for law students enrolled in our proposed curriculum.