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The Real World: Closing the Readiness Gap for New Lawyers

In just a matter of weeks, thousands of new law school graduates will celebrate passing the bar exam and prepare to be sworn in at their State Superior Court.

Then the anxiety kicks in, as the reality of the job market stares them right in the face. For the past several years, the legal job market has languished as a glut of new attorneys has entered a workforce offering fewer and fewer employment prospects.

Adding to this dismal outlook is the staggering amount of debt many new grads have racked up to pay for their JD degrees. Eager to find work, newbie lawyers face a harsh reality- they have no real world work experience. Whether their dream job is at a big corporate, middle size or boutique law firm, non-profit or government agency if these rookie attorneys haven’t cut their teeth on a real case, they won’t get any bites when sending out their polished resumes.

Increasingly it appears the easiest path to employment is by becoming a sole practitioner. In light of the economic downturn, there’s been a surge in demand for legal services in areas such as bankruptcy, foreclosures and family law. As more veterans return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan many are turning to legal services to deal with economic and domestic hardships. However, for new lawyers the “sink or swim” method of practice, that lacks the solid foundation needed to competently represent clients, is a cause for concern from a regulatory standpoint and for the entire justice system.

The readiness gap for new law grads is so concerning that the California State Bar’s Board of Trustees has sounded the alarm to law schools and the legal community. There’s an urgent need for law schools and experienced members of the legal profession to pitch in and help young lawyers get more work experience so they can get a foot in the door and hit the ground running.

With the recent creation of a “task force” the Bar has outlined a three-pronged plan to implement new recommendations, the first of which includes a competency-training requirement. Before admission to practice, law students must take at least 15 units of practice-based, experiential course work such as an externship, clerkship or apprenticeship before graduation. Another prerequisite includes 50 hours of working with pro bono or modest means clients at the pre or post-admission stage. This allows young lawyers the opportunity to get hands-on experience while helping clients who are unable to afford an attorney. And the last requirement in the post-admission phase is 10 additional hours of Mandatory Continuing Legal Education or MCLE courses for new lawyers.

While law schools bear the brunt of the responsibility in preparing the next generation of lawyers, it’s the legal community at large that must share in this obligation. Law school is where students learn critical thinking skills, legal theories and how to become problem solvers. But it’s the nuts-and-bolts of practicing law such as how to meet court deadlines, format pleadings, interview clients, draft contracts, negotiate or examine documents, which can only be learned while working alongside an experienced professional. It’s impossible to wrap your arms around the kind of pressure a young lawyer is subjected to when called up to meet the expectations of representation until you are thrown into the fire. It’s the responsibility of seasoned attorneys to mentor law students to better prepare them for real-world scenarios so they can handle stressful circumstances with confidence.

There are a number of ways to provide this professional guidance either by offering externships, internships or sponsoring law school events that promote excellence in the industry. Partnering with your alma mater is a great way to get involved with student events such as mock trial competitions. Student litigators get the opportunity to argue complex cases with opening statements, conducting direct and cross-examination of experts and witnesses and make closing arguments in front of an audience. These are meaningful opportunities to help shape the future career of the next great litigator or powerful defense attorney.

The onus to make these programs successful does not fall on the shoulders of the “experienced” bar alone. Law students also need to create opportunities for themselves by harnessing the power of networking. Join professional organizations such as The Los Angeles County Bar, The National Association of Women Lawyers, The Asian American Bar, The Hispanic National Bar, The Consumer Attorneys of Los Angeles, to name a few, that can help young attorneys build relationships that can turn into referrals. There are more than 100 counties, municipal and specialty bar associations in California that provide mentoring programs. Many also offer access to online professional advice through listservs where less experienced lawyers can get tips on how to avoid common pitfalls and seek the counsel of experienced attorneys. Most newly hired lawyers will admit it’s nearly impossible to get a job without knowing someone first, who will put in a good word.

The legal world is changing fast and while young lawyers are more tech-savvy than their predecessors they still need to get up to speed on how legal services are delivered in the 21stcentury. We must pass along our wisdom and expertise that is refined through our professional experience. The only way our young lawyers will thrive and our justice system will prosper is by bypassing the torch.

This article was published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal – Nov. 12, 2014

Taylor Rayfield is an attorney at Greene Broillet & Wheeler, LLP specializing in product liability, catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death, business torts, and legal malpractice. GB&W is the proud co-sponsor of the National Civil Trial Competition (NCTC), hosted by Loyola Law School held in Los Angeles on November 14th-16th, 2014. 64 law student litigants from the nation’s top 16 law schools will compete by arguing a case in front of a panel of judges consisting of prestigious members of the Southern California Bar.