When California Western School of Law students approach visiting professor Bob Seibel, they always have the same query: What's the best way to run a law practice?
They've learned how to practice law but not how to run a business. Until now.
Last month, California Western launched a law firm incubator program for its graduates that will help them start their own solo or small firm practice.
Patterned after the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law's Community Resource Legal Network, California Western's Access to the Law Initiative allows graduates to share office space and resources while receiving special training into the operation of a law firm.
"A lot of law schools are recognizing the responsibility and opportunity for helping their law students doesn’t necessarily end with graduation," said Seibel, who teaches the internship program at California Western and also is a member of the CUNY School of Law faculty.
The Access to Law offices are located in downtown's Symphony Towers. They currently house eight attorneys, each of whom operates their own practice.
As a unique feature to the program, each attorney has pledged to provide at least 100 pro bono service hours a year.
“The program follows the adage ‘doing well by doing good,’” Seibel said. "The expectation is that lawyers who serve the underserved will gain experience and make contacts that will lead to an economically viable practice, while making a difference in the lives of their community.”
Participants will get advice on how to keep track of billable hours, manage accounts and ethical issues and other day-to-day situations that may arise. They also are encouraged to network and develop a client list.
"Students don't have time to devote to courses about (operating a law firm), and a lot argue it’s not something you learn that well in a classroom," Seibel said. "You have to learn it in a supportive environment, on the job."
The program comes at a time when law schools are under fire for the poor employment rates of recent graduates. The State Bar of California is even considering whether to add a practical skills training requirement for admission to the bar.
California Western has made an effort to give its students practical training, starting with the STEPPS (Skills Training for Ethical and Preventive Practice and career Satisfaction) Program.
“With academic programs such as STEPPS, and clinical efforts like the California Innocence Project, California Western is already among law schools taking the lead in a combined focus on the academic and practical requirements of the law,” said Joseph Dunn, executive director of the California bar. “The Access to Law Initiative extends that preparation into the first years of practice, offering mentoring and learning opportunities to solo practitioners that will prove helpful throughout their careers.”
California Western is among a growing trend. Thomas Jefferson School of Law recently announced it will be offering a similar incubator program this fall, also modeled after CUNY's initiative.
Seibel envisions each participant in the California Western program staying approximately 18 months before going off on their own. He thinks a year and a half is about the time it takes to develop an economically viable, self-sustaining legal practice. The program is flexible, so attorneys can leave earlier or stay later than the 18-month timeframe.
The Access to Law Initiative likely will be expanded to more than eight attorneys next year. Seibel said interested participants need to show a commitment to the public interest and a desire to practice in areas that will best serve the community.
California Western’s strong public service program has been recognized with inclusion on President Barack Obama’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for three consecutive years, and by the State Bar of California, which presented the law school with the President’s Pro Bono Service Award in 2010.
Seibel will be encouraging California Western alumni to help mentor and network with Access to Law participants.
"CUNY first put a name to the longitudinal law school," he said. "It encourages alumni to come back and participate in the curriculum."
225 Cedar St.
San Diego, CA 92101
April 23, 2010 -- Executive Editor George Chamberlin speaks with the Dean of Cal Western School of Law, Steven Smith, about education in the legal industry.
Jamie Cooper, an assistant dean at California Western School of Law, explains how comics are bringing the concept of law to Latin American countries through the Proyecto Acceso program.