With the recession making associate hours almost unbillable to corporate clients, law firms are finding themselves with a surplus of manpower and in a hiring dilemma: stop recruiting altogether or find ways to bring in and train new talent on the cheap.
Gibbons has a partial answer: one that echoes from eras past, when young attorneys cut their teeth at law office clerkships. The Newark, N.J., firm has launched an one-year "apprenticeship" program to allow newly admitted lawyers an opportunity to learn the ropes.
The program "exposes recent law school graduates to the day-to-day responsibilities of law firm junior associates" and trains them for that role, the firm said in announcing its first apprentice, John Cahill, a 2010 Seton Hall University School of Law graduate who began in September in the Intellectual Property Department.
David De Lorenzi, chair of the Intellectual Property Department and mastermind behind the apprenticeship program, says the concept had been discussed at firm advisory board meetings for some time.
"By no means is this a substitute for first-year associates," he says, instead calling it "an additional means of finding young talent."
Available to law school graduates who have taken or passed the bar, a Gibbons apprenticeship is a paid position -- with equivalent compensation to that of an Appellate Division clerk, about $48,000 per year -- that could lead to a full-time offer at the end of the one-year period, De Lorenzi says.
Apprentices will participate in training, do research and "shadow" attorneys in court and during client meetings.
The firm is evaluating the program and has no immediate plans to expand it by bringing on more apprentices, De Lorenzi says.
Some apprentice work will be billed to clients, albeit at a deeply discounted rate, though much of it will not be, De Lorenzi says.
"Their [apprentices'] concern is not at all what their billable hours look like," he says. "It's a secondary if not third-tier consideration" for the firm.
The program might be most suitable for "second-career" lawyers who have moved to the law from other areas, De Lorenzi says. Cahill is one of these: he has a doctoral degree in physical chemistry from Tulane University in New Orleans and had a prior career in engineering. Most recently, Cahill was a product development manager at Lasertel in Tucson, Ariz., a company that builds semiconductor laser devices for defense and medical applications.
Why the switch? "I spent a lot of time with lawyers and most of them seemed to really enjoy what they were doing," says the Boston native, who is 39. "It was a now-or-never type of thing" to pursue a law career."
The inauguration of Gibbons' program comes at a time when many other avenues to full-time legal work, such as summer associate programs, are drying up. Many large New Jersey firms have been making cuts to their programs in recent years, according to a New Jersey Law Journal survey in May.
Of the state's 20 highest-grossing firms, only Greenberg Traurig in Florham Park, N.J., and Budd Larner in Short Hills, N.J. -- along with Gibbons -- did not report running any summer program in the most recent summer associate survey.
De Lorenzi notes that "the return-on-investment in summer programs is extremely low" because many associates shop their job offers and never return.
While apprenticeship programs are relatively new and not necessarily the norm at area firms, there have been a number elsewhere, says Stephanie Richman, assistant dean for career services at Rutgers Law School-Newark.
"There can be differences among them, depending on what the firms are trying to accomplish," she says.
She adds that she is not familiar with Gibbons' new program.
De Lorenzi says other firms have used apprenticeship programs similar to Gibbons', including Howrey in Washington, D.C., and Fross Zelnick Lehrman & Zissu in New York.