Stratford trial lawyer Kenneth Beck is all too aware of the challenges facing newly minted law school graduates who are ready to start careers, but sorely in need of on-the-job experience to get in the door.
That need for training gave him an idea: why not charge young attorneys a monthly fee to follow him to court when he makes appearances? After all, there might be a large number of people who could benefit from his 20 years of experience by observing him at work. So Beck put a “Help Wanted” posting on Craigslist to see how many law school grads might jump at the chance.
“I wasn’t looking to charge five people $300 an hour to go to court with me,” said Beck, who runs a small general practice firm in Stratford with four other lawyers. “I was just looking to basically not lose money that’s involved in explaining things. It would be learning by doing. I thought it was a creative way to fill a gap. I thought I was offering a service.”
The unintended consequence of his idea, however, has raised controversy over whether it is wrong for a law firm to charge law school graduates for on-the-job training. In the past week or so, the debate has raged all over the legal web, as well as in Connecticut legal circles.
“I’m still peeling myself off the ceiling,” said Lou Pepe, who is co-chair of the Connecticut Bar Association’s professionalism and CLE section. “I think it’s quite unfortunate that anyone would try to exploit the plight of recent law school grads in such a manner. I hope it’s not a portent of things to come in our profession.”
While Beck said his idea is comparable to training seminars offered for years by law schools and bar associations, Pepe said the difference is that Beck wanted to charge for something that is available for free. For example, Pepe said, there is a through a mentoring program organized by the CBA in which newly admitted lawyers are paired up with seasoned professionals to get advice and practical answers to questions about practicing. “We provide the same or better guidance,” Pepe said. “At no charge.”
But Beck says he was just trying to help. “I was shocked by the response from people who thought this was wrong,” he said. “Now I’m getting a lot of nasty emails, so I decided to pull the ad. It’s gone.”
About eight young lawyers responded to Beck’s ad by email, some saying they wanted to know more about his offer. Mark Randall, a University of Connecticut School of Law student who expects to graduate this year, wasn’t among those replying, but he understands the potential appeal. “I could see how somebody might be desperate enough to take him up on the offer,” Randall said. “Experience is a necessity in this difficult job market,” but, he concluded, “buying experience isn’t the answer.”
‘Come To This’
But the biggest response by far came from bloggers and visitors to online message boards, many of whom thought Beck was taking advantage of people in a difficult job market.
Staci Zaretsky, a 2010 law school grad who lives in New Jersey and works for the blog Above the Law, was outraged enough to spread the word about Beck’s offer. What caught her attention was the straightforwardness of Beck’s posting: “Are You Recently Admitted To The Bar, Or Awaiting Bar Results, But Need Experience For That First Job.”
Beneath that heading, the ad read: “General practice attorney with more than twenty years of experience is willing to train a small number of recently admitted attorneys, or those awaiting bar results. For a monthly fee, you will be able to shadow the experienced attorney, and learn by watching the day to day practice of law. Observe the following types of proceedings, as they occur; Civil Short Calendar, motion arguments, foreclosure mediation’s, pre-trial conferences, Workers’ Compensation and Social Security hearings, real estate closings, discovery proceedings and compliance, research and general office operations. …
Zaretsky posed as a hungry law school grad and sent an email seeking more information. Mostly, she wanted to know how much money the law grads would have to pay for Beck’s service. Beck told her he wasn’t sure how much the fee would be; it would depend on how many people participated.
Zaretsky had harsh words for Beck in her blog entry. “Oh, how kind of you to reduce the fee based on the number of applications you receive from people who are so hard up for a job that they’re willing to pay for one, even after shelling out hundreds of thousands of federally backed loan dollars in law school tuition,” she wrote. “I guess this is the new world that we’re living in.”
Beck’s Craigslist posting caught the attention of others, including the ABA Journal and Legal Blog Watch.
As Jane Genova, a New Haven-based blogger for Law and More put it, “It’s come to this.”
“This is even worse than an unpaid internship in that a fee isn’t required from the intern to gain the experience, ” Genova wrote. “ Will this kind of revenue producer be censured by the state bar association?”
CBA President Barry Hawkins doesn’t see any Practice Book violation or other problems, outside of possible attorney-client privilege issues. But he said that young lawyers would be better served participating in the CBA mentoring program, which currently has more available mentors than law graduates in search of guidance. “Since mentoring is offered for free through the CBA, why would anyone pay for shadowing?” he said.
Others said they expected the state’s Chief Disciplinary Counsel or the American Bar Association to step in and take a stand against the practice, though no could think of any rule being violated. Beck does not believe any employment laws or attorney-client rules would be broken, because he made it clear he was not asking the graduates to interact with clients or do any work. He also said he planned to ask judges and clients if it was OK that the lawyers would be with him in court.
Patricia King, chief disciplinary counsel for the state of Connecticut, said no rules violations that came to mind. “But it sure is sad,” she said, referring to the overall employment picture.
Leslie Levin, a professor of law and the associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Connecticut School of Law, has heard of instances of where immigration lawyers have paid more experienced practitioners for information on how to approach a case. In that instance, the tutoring was in a highly specialized practice area.
“I could see how there might be a market for this sort of thing among young lawyers who want to learn something, if you’re just talking about where the courthouse is or how to file a brief,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to get or give information about practicing law in that way. And this lawyer [Beck] is trying to tap into that.
Levin continued: “But there are plenty of ways new lawyers can get that kind of information for free. The truth is, a lot of the ways that young lawyers learn to practice law is they ask questions. They ask the clerk of courts, they ask their classmates.”
They also ask questions of experienced attorneys. In fact, a long-standing tradition in the legal profession has been experienced lawyers helping the less experienced, when they can. “It would certainly be a shame” if the idea of charging young lawyers for guidance “took hold,” Levin said.
Jonathan Shapiro, president of the Young Lawyers Section of the CBA, was far less critical of Beck’s idea. Instead, Shapiro said Beck’s ad speaks volumes of the current state of the job market for recent law school grads. Many law school graduates continue to have trouble finding work, which can lead to a vicious cycle of not being able to gain enough experience to land a job. “If even a few attorneys responded, it is a few too many,” he said. “Law school graduates shouldn’t have to pay for this sort of opportunity.”
Beck, who has logged hundreds of pro bono hours over the years, said he’s still interested in the idea of helping to train young attorneys. “If I could come up with a way to do this without generating controversy, I certainly would,” he said. “I feel there is a need to show lawyers what they don’t learn in law school. But until then, the idea will be on the back burner.”•
Jay Stapleton is a reporter for The Connecticut Law Tribune, a Legal affiliate.