Law Firm Apprentice Programs Just Might Work

One ongoing story to come out of the recession has centered on the changes taking place at the associate level of big law firms. New associates are seeing their jobs deferred, salaries frozen, bonuses going away, and mentoring programs vanishing. Much of it is being couched as temporary, but ask any young associate and they will tell you that there is reason to believe it is all too permanent. More than anything, all of these changes feel reactionary at best (attempting to deal with economic conditions) and predatory at worst (taking advantage of market conditions to drive down expectations). That’s why it is refreshing to see an entirely new idea being broached at a handful of firms that is actually trying to improve the associate model. A fascinating article on was posted today that outlines new “apprentice” programs that have been rolled out at a series of mid-size and large law firms.

The idea is relatively simple: rather than throw new associates into the typical billing gauntlet right out of the gates, these firms are trying to transition them in a more effective way through training and low stakes opportunities. Every firm described in the article is different, but the standard model seems to look like this:

– Two year apprenticeship
– Heavy focus on client meetings, attorney shadowing, and even classroom scenarios
– Low billable hour requirements (about 700, or a third of total time)
– Approximately $100K in salary
– $25K each year as a “completion bonus” to pay down loans

The impetus for the program seems to come from a desire to please clients – many of whom have grown tired of paying for young associate training in the form of long bills full of inefficient research, document review, or due diligence. The clients quoted in the article certainly seem happy about the change.

Of greater interest is how the associates themselves will feel about this model. The article expressed a certain amount of doubt that law school grads will want to pass up bigger paychecks and “real work” to pursue an apprenticeship track. There seems to be a feeling among both big firm partners and law school career officers that once the recession is over and grads have their choice, none of them will go for this new idea.

I’m not so sure that is true. For starters, some of the people quoted in the article are not fully understanding the difference between $160,000 and $100,000 in salary. Sure, the latter is more money, but its all about planning and expectations for the first few years. For many law school graduates, the primary goal coming out of school is to pay down some debt. By merely completing each year of the program, a law school loan could be knocked down close to $35,000 (accounting for taxes on the bonus amount). For someone taking out $100,000 to go to school, it would be a huge benefit to chop off a third of their debt in two years. And since the bonus is taking care of the loan piece of one’s living expenses, that leaves an entire $100,000 salary to pay for the rest.

Furthermore, the assumption that new associates crave “client work” is almost laughable. New associates have no idea what they want or don’t want, what they will enjoy or hate, what they are good at or terrible at. Everything is a learning experience. And quite frankly, unless you know you want to make partner one day, “learning” by doing high stakes billable hours and grinding through 80 hour weeks is not exactly a grand time. I believe a lot of new associate would prefer less pressure and fewer hours for lower pay.

Regardless, it will be interesting to follow this new trend – especially if and when one of the elite firms adopts the model. I personally think we are on the cusp of something pretty big.