Hands-on Help

By Debbie Briner
From the October 2012 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Tim Johnson

Medical school graduates know that their residency program will provide practical, invaluable on-the-job training as they work toward becoming a full-fledged physician.

Law school graduates, on the other hand, may not be as fortunate.

After years of work to earn an undergraduate degree, complete law school and pass the bar exam, it’s often a matter of trial by fire for those who land their first job as a practicing attorney.

To make matters worse, jobs at established law firms are getting harder to come by—another casualty of the economy’s dive a few years ago. That translated into fewer jobs at big offices where veteran attorneys offer tutelage and guidance.

Law firms are hiring fewer people, and jobs for new attorneys are harder to come by, says Susan Simms, a law professor at Capital University’s School of Law.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, the employment rate for new graduates is at a 15-year-plus low. As a result, a growing number of law school grads are hanging out their own shingle.

As the Columbus Bar Association observed these trends, staff members began to consider what they could do to help, says Jill Snitcher McQuain, the CBA’s executive director of communications/membership. Though the bar realized it couldn’t directly provide jobs to new attorneys, it aimed to better prepare them to successfully launch their own private practices.

The organization developed a mentoring concept that led to a pilot incubator program—Columbus Bar inc (short for incubator)—for new attorneys interested in starting a solo practice.

The first of its kind in the country, inc already is earning solid reviews, not to mention the 2012 Solo and Small Firm Project Award from the American Bar Association Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. The award recognizes successful implementation of a program targeted to solo practitioners and attorneys at small firms. Still, inc remains a work in progress.

“We weren’t exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into, but we wanted to help,” says Snitcher McQuain. “We didn’t want it to be a quick fix, a place to hang out for a little while until you did find a job.”

With that in mind, the bar association identified criteria for new lawyers interested in participating, Snitcher McQuain says, to help ensure Columbus Bar inc got off on the right foot.

Inc’s inaugural group in April 2011 was limited to eight graduates of the law schools at Capital University and Ohio State University. Snitcher McQuain says they were expected to develop business and marketing plans, pay a small monthly stipend to help cover office costs and, among other responsibilities, take on at least one pro bono case—criteria that remain for current participants.

Participating attorneys get equipment and office space a floor below the CBA on South Third Street in downtown Columbus. Fourteen veteran attorneys have signed on as mentors.

Guidance for New Grads

Learning about the practical details of running your own law office during inc’s approximately15-month session is helpful, of course. But the real focus of inc lies in the program’s three major initiatives: mentoring, educating and networking. The mission is straightforward—to help new lawyers establish a successful practice by building their confidence and their comfort zone.

On-the-job experience in an environment where mentoring help is just a neighboring office or phone call away can calm the jitters of the newly licensed attorneys and also provide answers to specific legal questions—or more general information such as where to go in the courthouse to file case paperwork.

“I would definitely not be able to do this without the help of the mentors,” says current inc participant Mary Lewis, a recent graduate of OSU’s Moritz College of Law.

Law school teaches you to think like a lawyer, says Lewis, who specializes in plaintiff’s employment law, but the mentors’ advice and guidance has been invaluable as she establishes her practice.

“You know what to do in theory, but you’ve never done it in practice,” says inc alumna Jocelyn Armstrong, a 2009 Capital Law School graduate.

Armstrong heard about CBA inc from a friend. “I had started doing sort of a part-time solo practice at home in the evening after my day job,” she says, which was unrelated to the law. “It can be an isolating experience.”

Not only did inc alleviate that, she says, it also initiated beneficial relationships with mentors and other participants. Proximity to the local bar association “is also a benefit because you know you’re not alone,” Armstrong says.

There is another lesson that inc can teach new solo practitioners, Armstrong points out. “Part of it is learning how to properly manage your time,” she says. This includes carving out time not only for handling client work, but also for tasks such as billing, filing, marketing and other management tasks.

When Lewis graduated from law school last year, job openings at firms were hard to come by. “I actually decided before I heard about the program I was going to start my own practice,” she says.

Then Lewis learned about inc. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s just perfect.’ ”

Since she started the program in January, Lewis has learned plenty about how to operate her solo firm, including how to set an office budget. “It’s hard, but it’s not impossible,” she says. “I didn’t have a business background but I kind of wish I did. I’m quickly learning.”

The juggling act is a necessary tool for success, says attorney Adam Todd. “You wear many hats: You’re technical support, you’re the accountant, you’re the website administrator.”

Todd, a Capital alumnus, has experience working at larger firms but opted to start a solo practice last year. He now volunteers as an on-site inc mentor, holding regular office hours and taking phone calls when he’s off-site to advise and assist participants.

“I really like the camaraderie among the attorneys in the program,” says Todd, who specializes in defense litigation. Interaction among the new attorneys and mentors brings the benefit of “seeing a new, fresh perspective.”

 

Networking and Mentorship

Inc participants work in a variety of practice areas, including domestic law, collections and consumer law and general practice. They can take advantage of educational opportunities on topics such as ethics or how and where to file paperwork. “We literally took a tour of the [Franklin County] courthouse,” says Snitcher McQuain. “The judges have been phenomenal” in their support of inc.

On the networking side, Snitcher McQuain says connections to groups such as the Columbus Chamber or a CPA professional group, for instance, provide “environments where they can potentially develop relationships.”

After completing inc, Armstrong took a part-time job as the mentoring program’s administrator while also practicing law on her own. Her interests include alternative dispute resolution, estate planning and juvenile law.

Among her duties at inc is scheduling the educational sessions. Armstrong says her role offers “a unique opportunity to be an attorney but also administer a program that helps attorneys.”

James Bownas, an attorney with Lane, Alton & Horst who practices in estate planning, wills and trusts, has been a mentor since inc started. The program, he says, is a throwback to Abraham Lincoln’s era “when you would study the law with another practitioner, and when the practitioner decided the student was capable he would start out on his own.”

Inc “simulates it as closely as possible,” Bownas says.

Mentors answer questions and give advice on subjects as varied as how to effectively manage a law office’s business side and how to find answers to arcane questions of law, he says.

The mentoring reinforces the collegiality of practicing law, Bownas says. “You’re not in this alone. There is somebody—many somebodies—even if it’s just to make sure you’re thinking right about something.”

Simms agrees: “People who have been attorneys for 25 or 30 years still call their colleagues and bounce things off them.” Inc attorneys’ interaction with more experienced lawyers helps the rookies “build confidence and helps them build their skills.”

To date, Armstrong says about 16 lawyers have completed or are now participating in inc. A half-dozen “inclings” have graduated. The program continues to evolve. It now accepts new lawyers who are licensed to practice in Ohio, not just graduates of local law schools.

Inc costs about $100,000 annually to operate, says Snitcher McQuain. The program recently received a $25,000 Columbus Law Library Association grant and also receives donations from law firms.

Snitcher McQuain says getting inc participants and mentor volunteers has been relatively easy; volunteers consider it one of the CBA’s most gratifying experiences. “We get terrific feedback,” she says.

Lewis is impressed by the near-instant accessibility of inc’s mentors. “You can just call them at any time,” she says. “I figured they wouldn’t want to be bothered.”

Mentors say they get something out of the program, too. “I’m really driven by gratitude,” Bownas says. “When a new lawyer looks at me with the expression of ‘I get it’ on her face and says ‘Wow,’ that’s the reward.”

“I don’t know why somebody didn’t think of this sooner,” Todd says.

“The only disappointing thing about it is we can’t get more people involved,” Simms says.

Lewis, who still has another half-year or so to go in inc, says she knows the responsibility for her success ultimately rests on her shoulders. “I’m definitely feeling prepared to do pretty much anything,” she says.

Debbie Briner is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the October 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.