Training the Next Generation of Family Law Attorneys

Posted: April 29th, 2013 by

Joni Berner, The Legal Intelligencer (online)

My colleague, Lisa Shapson, usually writes this column, but she has allowed me to commandeer her platform this month in order to pontificate about my newest professional interest:  supporting the next generation of family law attorneys.

Berner Klaw & Watson launched a project three years ago, which we envisioned as a one-year opportunity for a handful of recent law school graduates to immerse themselves in the practice of family law under the attentive watch of our experienced attorneys and with lenient expectations about billing, required professional networking and constant exposure to law firm management. We likened our program to a judicial clerkship and dubbed the participants “law clerks.” The project remains a work in progress as we tweak it here and there to work as well as possible for the law clerks, our legal and support staff and our clients, but I’m ready to give a public progress report and invite others to join the conversation about training the next generation of attorneys.

Our firm has always welcomed undergraduates, law students and attorneys-in-transition (from another practice area) interested in family law practice. Each of our attorneys enjoys teaching – whether to a large audience at a PBI course or one-on-one with a mentee – and there has always been a steady stream of family lawyer wannabes at our door, seeking a chance to work with us for modest compensation or even for free. For years, we had no organized plan for incorporating this large pool of talent-in-training. With the increase in available, eager candidates, the constant pressure to provide affordable legal services to the “regular folk” (i.e., not the mega-rich who aren’t devastated by three-figure hourly rates) and the resolve of law schools to produce students who can do something with their expensive educations, we wanted to test a new model. More specifically, in 2010, I was inspired by two Villanova Law School graduates (who spent months volunteering with me on a difficult pro bono custody case) to brainstorm about a way for young lawyers to receive on-the-job training from experienced attorneys without the formality and expense of permanent employment and, at the same time, providing valuable, affordable legal services to clients.

My assistants conducted interviews of my entire staff to find out their willingness to take on new trainees and their thoughts about using them to improve our services and operational efficiency. They polled law school colleagues about how such a program should be structured. We called upon Villanova’s career strategy staff for ideas about building a program and researched models in other states in developing our own list of program aspirations. My partners and I made financial projections about how we could compensate law clerks modestly and cover the cost (and then some) from the reasonable fees we could charge our clients. We worked out space logistics and the cost to reconfigure two adjacent offices in our small suite to accommodate five workstations.

We could have planned and planned and planned some more, but, after a few months, I made an executive decision that we would just launch the BKW Law Clerk Program on September 1, 2010, and work out the details as we went. Here are some of the issues we encountered and decisions we made:

• What’s in a name? “Law clerk” has not been the best name. Although we clearly identify on our letterhead that the clerks are licensed attorneys, other lawyers and judges have sometimes questioned their credentials. But, we haven’t come up with a better name … yet. Our first informal title was “resident,” which my original assistants favored as a way to designate that they were lawyers-in-training, just like a doctor-in training. (We welcome suggestions for a more descriptive name.)

• Professional liability insurance:  At first, we questioned whether the clerks needed to have liability insurance since they would be shadowing one of the permanent attorneys at all times, which we speculated was not actually practicing law. A conversation with our insurance carrier’s counsel quickly set us straight:  If we hire a licensed attorney to work in our office in any capacity – even cleaning after hours – he or she must be included in our liability coverage. The obligation is defined by the qualifications of the worker, not the assignments actually undertaken. Fortunately, we found that it was relatively inexpensive to add a baby lawyer to a professional liability policy; because he or she has no historic exposure, the cost fit into the additional 5 to 7 percent of base pay we already budgeted for payroll taxes, CLEs and dues.

• Training:  Because four of the five law clerks in our first “class” had worked for us in the past, we didn’t follow a formal training schedule. By the second and third years, however, I spent the first two or three weeks with the new clerks, conducting an intensive orientation to substantive family law and procedure, client relations, billing, technology and firm administration. The plan was to make sure they knew where to find the answers to substantive legal questions, how to produce needed documents and store them logically and how to track their time.

• Mentoring and case assignments:  I had originally intended to match each law clerk with one of our permanent attorneys and I would become the WOW – the wise old woman in the corner office, supervising and managing things. Part of the appeal of our program was the delegation/supervision opportunity I envisioned for our experienced attorneys; small-firm life otherwise breeds relative autonomy in case management. As it turned out, it was better to encourage the permanent attorneys to determine which cases were most conducive to partnering with a clerk and to ensure that all clerks had an opportunity to work with each of the permanent attorneys and on every type of case.

• Recruitment:  We have been very low-key about soliciting new clerks. We added a page to our website describing the program and the application process, and the word just got out. We’ve had 50 or more qualified applicants each year without any other effort on our part.

• Size and duration:  We made two major changes to the program this year. First, we cut back from five clerks to three, since, at times, it was hard to ensure that everyone had enough work. We also expanded the clerkship to two years, after recognizing that just as the clerks were getting up to speed, they felt compelled to search for permanent jobs.

We certainly don’t profess to have developed a model program, nor can we guarantee that our clerks will find permanent employment as family law attorneys, but it has been extremely rewarding to us and many of our clients (who like the idea of helping young lawyers develop skills and appreciate the attention they receive from the clerks). We’re proud to report that four of our 10 “graduated” clerks landed their dream jobs in family law boutique firms; another works as a child advocate, one started her own practice, and one works in her favored field – immigration – and handles most of the issues related to marital status. Two learned that they didn’t want to practice family law, but landed other legal jobs, and one reluctantly left the clerkship to take a permanent job in a corporate legal department (but continues to dream of returning to family practice). I am frequently asked why we would want to spend our time training future adversaries; we can’t think of a better way to foster civility in the practice of family law.

Reprinted with permission from the APRIL 29, 2013 issue of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER (online). © 2013 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved.

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