With law school enrollment rates down 24 percent since 2010, it’s no secret that the legal job market is hardly bursting with opportunity. Finding a job with a firm has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for many recent law school graduates. Some combat this problem by hanging their own shingles, but the business of starting a firm can be daunting. To address this issue, some law schools are developing creative new programs that provide graduates with the tools to start their own firms rather than leaving graduates at the mercy of the ebb and flow of the legal job market.
One such post-graduate program is the law firm incubator, now used by over 15 law schools. Like the legal clinics found at many schools, recent graduates participating in a law firm incubator assist more experienced attorneys in representing low-income and underserved populations. A law firm incubator differs from a clinic in that participants take a leading role and handle a much larger case load with minimal guidance from their supervising attorneys. Participants in the incubator also receive training on how to hang their own shingle and successfully manage small or solo firms. Graduates stay with the incubator for about 12 to 18 months and receive compensation for their work before transitioning to a small or solo practice.
While the prospect of a paid job with an incubator may sound enticing, especially if students are facing unemployment after graduation, a law firm incubator may not be a stepping stone for every law student’s career. It is important for law students and recent graduates to evaluate their career goals when deciding whether a law firm incubator is right for them, rather than viewing it as a place to wait out a difficult job market.
First, students and graduates should consider the area of law in which they want to practice. Generally, incubators focus on underserved clients who need assistance with legal issues related to immigration, family law and disability rights. For students and recent graduates interested in those practice areas, an incubator provides a wonderful opportunity to take on immediate responsibility and hone their legal skills. For those interested in practice areas such as corporate law or government regulation, the incubators may not provide the experience necessary for graduates to open their own firms in those practice areas or to be attractive to law firms or government agencies seeking associates.
Second, students and graduates should consider whether or not they are interested in starting their own firm or assisting in managing a small firm. Incubators prepare participants for the business side of running a law firm by providing training in accounting, tax compliance and malpractice prevention in addition to guiding them in the art of law practice. Graduates or students who are interested in running a solo or small firm should jump at the chance to participate in an incubator to receive hands-on business training. Incubators provide students with the experience of running their own firm without the financial risk of owning it. However, students and recent graduates with no interest in hanging their own shingle or those who are focused on working for a firm or government agency may find the business lessons unnecessary.
While law firm incubators may not be right for everyone, they are hopefully a sign of good things to come for the legal industry in 2014. They provide a solution to unemployment for some recent law graduates by preparing them for solo careers or careers with small firms in specific practice areas. Whether or not a law firm incubator is right for you depends largely on your individual career aspirations. Do you have any experience with a law firm incubator? Tell us in the Comments.
Consider Law Schools with In-House Firms, Incubators (US News)
Law firm incubators help both grads and needy clients (ABA Journal)
To Place Graduates, Law Schools Are Opening Firms (NYT)