Law360 (April 15, 2020, 4:30 PM EDT) --
New York state courthouses were all effectively shut down, except for very few legal matters deemed essential. In addition, the federal government’s social distancing guidelines, in conjunction with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s numerous executive orders over the past few weeks, have handicapped the legal profession, particularly defense attorneys who cannot meet with their clients or even communicate with them, in some cases, if they are behind bars.
Most striking for the next wave of attorneys, the bar examination was postponed. This means prospective lawyers will have to wait longer to sit for the exam, get admitted to the bar and most importantly, practice law so they can start paying off some of those suffocating student loans. Certainly, this was all required in light of the tragic public health emergency that COVID-19 brought upon us.
However, if you are a New York lawyer looking for a silver lining, look across the river. New Jersey has responded with a progressive, much-needed plan.
As per an order issued by the New Jersey Supreme Court, 2020 law graduates will be permitted to work as attorneys, in light of these difficult circumstances, prior to being formally admitted to the state bar.
Now, there are limits. These graduates (1) can only do so under the supervision of an attorney in good standing, with a three-year license, (2) must get certification from the Supreme Court Committee on Character, and (3) must sign up to take the next available bar exam.
This is brilliant, and this should be permitted even after the COVID-19 pandemic ceases.
The traditional law school model delivers a three-year course of study. All lawyers know that the third year is generally not one where required courses are taken or serious bar exam preparation begins. Instead, law students are primarily occupied with taking elective courses, interning and looking for jobs. But, they still have to take classes, get passing grades and maintain their GPAs.
These efforts could be spent much more effectively, by practicing law.
New Jersey’s example should be adopted in New York, and also expanded. Law schools, as well as the New York State Bar, must begin training lawyers in their third year of study.
They must implement a “residency” program, akin to that in the medical profession, where lawyers shadow experienced practitioners, sit in on client interviews, appear in court, prepare retainer agreements, and open operating accounts.
The foundation for the residency would be to match each student to an attorney they can shadow for the third year of law school — either someone the student finds on their own or from a pool of attorneys each law school builds.
The students would work part time, perhaps 20 hours a week, and receive credit toward their degree. They can also receive a set stipend or per diem similar to the base salaries that medical residents receive. The money can come from the private attorney or a work-study program sponsored by the law school.
In addition to legal support, the attorneys would receive continuing legal education credits for training and mentoring students.
The agreement would be codified in an affidavit signed at the start of the semester and another one signed at the end of the residency that delineates the tasks completed and skills learned over the course of the year.
This would be a far more useful consumption of their time than taking niche electives that are not heavily tested on the bar exam or present widespread opportunities upon graduation.
Let’s be honest, over the past several years, law school admission rates have decreased and bar passage rates have plummeted. Law schools have responded by modifying their admission standards. Some have allowed admission without taking the LSAT law school aptitute test. Others have implemented a new two-year course of study.
The reason for these modifications is that people are turning away from law school. Quite simply, they do not want to graduate with enormous debt and limited employment prospects.
A third-year residency would allow law students to gain practical experience and earn money that digs into their debt.
One big reason employment prospects are limited is because law schools do not teach law students to be lawyers. Sure, they teach contract law, tort law and other legal subjects, but they are typically without state-specific focus.
These are all essential areas of law. They must be taught. But they can be taught in 18 months or two years. There is no need for a three-year course of study. If law schools continue to implement this antiquated model, the profession will suffer. And it simply cannot afford that.
Dmitriy Shakhnevich is a criminal defense and civil litigation attorney. He is also an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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