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Mississippi exports include William Faulkner, Elvis Presley and the Delta blues. But when it comes to importing graduates of top law schools to its largest firms, the state has a tougher marketing challenge. Luther Munford of the Jackson, Miss., office of New Orleans’ 228-lawyer Phelps Dunbar thinks he’s found a solution: recruiting young lawyers who don’t necessarily want to be lawyers. Here’s Munford’s thinking. If the local firms can’t match New York and Los Angeles salaries — and clearly they can’t, and won’t — then rather than try to compete for career-track lawyers from the top schools, he’ll borrow the hotshots for just a couple years. A program he started in January targets former federal court clerks who intend to teach law — but who can be convinced first to spend a couple of years practicing appellate law in Jackson. Munford is a Mississippi native who has nothing to apologize for in the r�sum�-building game. He attended the University of Virginia School of Law before clerking for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. His recruiting idea was conceived at a reunion for fellow clerks in the mid-’90s. “I was talking to a former clerk who was teaching legal writing so that she would have time to publish,” Munford recalls. The clerk wanted to teach law and needed published work to boost her credentials. “It occurred to me that my firm would pay more than a legal writing job, and if we could carve out some time for associates to write, maybe we could attract someone like that,” says Munford. Soon after the Blackmun reunion, Munford hired Christopher Green, a Yale Law School grad who was clerking for Judge Rhesa Barksdale at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He, too, aspired to teach, but wanted practical experience before returning to academia. “I was happy that I was able to hit the ground running in terms of legal issues,” says Green, who is now pursuing his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Green’s performance confirmed Munford’s hunch. So Munford launched the program, dubbed “Practice Before You Teach,” offering two appellate law clerks a reduced workload (1,500 billable hours a year) for a salary of at least $75,000 plus bonus, depending on the person’s experience and ability. Phelps Dunbar expects these associates to publish one or two scholarly articles a year. Does the program make sense for other firms? “It is not without a certain number of risks,” says Tulane Law School Dean Lawrence Ponoroff. “They are bringing in people whose attention is going to be distracted from the practice. They are coming in with the expectation that they are going to be short-timers.” Managing partner Rick Bass acknowledges that in most cases associates don’t add value to a firm until their third or fourth year. But appellate work, he insists, is different. “I think that what lawyers straight out of law school are best qualified to do — especially if they’ve had a clerkship — is appellate work. They have strong research and writing skills.” But how does a firm improve its attractiveness to potential recruits by hiring people who don’t intend to stay, and who most definitely won’t be rainmakers? Bass says that the program will infuse the firm with high-quality (if short-term) lawyers. It also may increase the firm’s visibility and seed law schools with Phelps Dunbar alumni. Munford focuses on creating what he calls “a brain drain to Mississippi.” Their appellate briefs may not rival Faulkner’s work, but it’s a start.

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