The legal profession can address the lack of access to legal services for low-income
people by restructuring how legal education is administered in the United States, particular by
providing post-doctoral training in free or low-cost legal clinics. When combined with pro bono
expectations for established attorneys, these postdocs would receive mentorship and supervision
from experienced attorneys while at the same time providing affordable legal services to the
Historically, most people entered the legal procession by reading law via independent
study or apprenticeship under a practicing attorney, usually by reading classic legal texts and
providing paralegal-type services for his supervisor. It was not until the 19th century that law
schools became common in the United States. In 1906, the Associate of American Law Schools
adopted a requirement that law school consist of a three-year course of study, effectively
abolishing the apprenticeship model and with it much of the practical, on-the-job training that
young lawyers need for success.
Despite three years of theoretical training in the classroom, legal employers do not expect
law graduates to have much practical legal training. Some schools are becoming more innovative
by offering students clinical opportunities during the course of study. For example, the United
States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has developed the Law School Clinic Certification
Pilot program, which allows law students enrolled in participating law school’s clinic program to
practice intellectual property law before the USPTO under the strict guidance of a Law School
Faculty Clinic Supervisor. In so doing, students gain experience drafting and filing either patent
or trademark applications for clients of the law school clinic.
Instead of a full three-year course of study, I propose a two- to two-and-a-half-year
program, where, after passing the bar examination, the student completes one or two semesters
as a law postdoc before attaining full stature as a member of the bar. By doing so, these new
lawyers will receive real experience practicing law, just as did the apprentices of yesteryear.
They can receive a modest stipend and be introduced to the skills of actually practicing law
before being required to meet the full stringencies of private practice (e.g., billable hours and
realization). At the same time, because billing rates and compensations are lower, these postdocs
can offer free or low-cost legal services to our underserved populations.
Postdoctoral programs are not new and exist for every other professional degree besides
the juris doctorate. Sure, there are summer programs, but a ten-week internship punctuated by
barbeques and ballgames in no substitute for real-world, hands-on experience after theoretical
training is completed and the lawyer passes the bar exam. Every PhD considers whether to
postdoc in a research lab or in one or more teaching instructor positions. Medical doctors
complete residency and, for further specialized training, many follow through with one or more
fellowships before setting out into the main part of her career. Summer legal internships are more
akin to laboratory work done in the course of study, rather than a postdoc where those skills are
refined to the point where the researcher functions as an independent operator, becoming the
leader of a research lab and a principal investigator on new scientific research, a fully vetted
member of the professional community.
Mentorship and supervision for the legal postdocs would come from established attorneys
in the community by use of their pro bono hours. Many law firms already encourage their
attorneys to provide pro bono legal services. Adopting the model rules of professional conduct,
the American Bar Association (ABA) recommends that attorneys donate at least 50 hours. Some
law firms, such as Polsinelli, provide billable hour credit for each hour spent on pro bono work,
even beyond the recommended 50-hour limits.
These established attorneys can provide oversight and mentorship to these fledgling legal
postdocs, leveraging their time and experience against the capacity of the new postdocs. In this
way, the underserved can receive the attention and high-quality legal work, just like clients who
can afford the full cost.