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Seeding the Plaintiffs Bar With New GraduatesDiversity fellowship introduces young and diverse lawyers to the plaintiffs bar
Last summer, law student Will Birnie got a taste of plaintiffs work and, he hopes, a step closer to a job. As one of four students selected by the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association for a diversity fellowhip, Birnie spent 10 weeks working for three well-known personal injury firms. Shaana Rahman, co-chair of the SFTLA diversity committee, said that although openings at plaintiffs firms are limited because the shops tend to stay lean, there is reason for fellows to hope that they have a better chance.
The Recorder2009-03-11 12:00:00 AM
Last summer, law student Will Birnie got a taste of plaintiffs work and -- he hopes -- a step closer to a job.
The third-year student at University of San Francisco School of Law spent 10 weeks working for three well-known, local personal injury firms: The Brandi Law Firm, The Arns Law Firm and The Dolan Law Firm. He was one of four students selected by the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association for its first diversity fellowship .
"I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, and the opportunity to feel out three different law firms appealed to me," Birnie said, who earned a $6,000 stipend. "Before this program it hadn't really dawned on me that there was such a difference in world view, philosophy and lifestyle between the plaintiffs and defense world."
Lawyers at both the Brandi and Dolan firms started trials at the time, and Birnie said he got to sit in on the prep work and watch them in action.
Birnie's internship has since translated into a part-time clerkship for The Dolan Firm. And once he earns his J.D. this spring and passes the bar, Birnie hopes his summer experience will help in the search for a full-time job.
"I would love to work for any of the law firms I worked for during the summer, and I'm sussing out where there might be an opportunity to do that," he said.
The San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association is hoping its program continues to gain steam even as the bad economy whittles away at traditional summer associate programs.
Rahman Gramly attorney Shaana Rahman, who co-chairs the SFTLA's diversity committee, said that applications are up. Forty-eight came in this year, compared to 26 last year. Four students were chosen, and will be hosted by a total of 12 firms. "Our goal is to slowly increase the number of fellowships," Rahman said. Money is one hurdle, she said. The program has been funded by SFTLA members and runs on a shoestring budget. "This year we have donations from several law firms."
Rahman said that the program is geared toward introducing young and diverse lawyers to the plaintiffs bar, and to give students the skills and contacts to begin building careers. Though positions at plaintiffs firms are limited because the shops tend to be small and stay lean, there is reason to hope, she said. Of the four 2008 fellows, two, including Birnie, continued to work at one of the firms they interned with, Rahman said. "To get a job in a plaintiffs firm, you have to know where to find the jobs and who to contact," she said. "They not only get the fellowship, they become members of the SFTLA and [have]its 800 members to draw on."
To be sure, some firms are better positioned to hire young lawyers than others. The last time five-lawyer San Francisco firm Rouda, Feder, Tietjen & Zanobini hired a freshly minted J.D. was 11 years ago, said attorney June Bashant.
"That would be me," she said, adding that she wasn't sure whether the firm would be looking to hire anytime soon. But it is hosting a student again this year. "We've made a commitment to help train law students," Bashant said.
The program gives students a shot at real experience in the trenches, Bashant said. Her fellow, for example, was present during a mediation and the major parts of a deposition, watching as lawyers from both sides questioned witnesses.
Christopher Dolan, who is participating for a second season, said that his firm has offered jobs to young lawyers. Of his 11 lawyers, six joined as clerks, he said.
Birnie was a "very successful summer clerk," who participated fully in a trial involving a crash between a motorcycle and a car, Dolan said. And he might be in a position to offer Birnie full-time work. "If Will was interested, we would certainly give it serious consideration."