Gary M. Stern
To overcome the justice gap in Texas, Texas A&M Law School, based in Fort Worth, Texas, established the Texas Apprenticeship Program, which trains law school graduates to manage and run a solo or small firm, explains Susan Fortney, a Texas A&M law professor who organizes the program.
The justice gap operates in two ways: a huge number of people make too much money and don’t qualify for free legal aid and therefore, can’t pay market rates for lawyer’s services, and secondly, attorneys require additional training to operate their practices efficiently and professionally to provide these services, explained Fortney who previously taught at Texas Tech and Hofstra law schools.
Launched in fall 2016, it pairs an experienced attorney running a solo or small law firm with a recent Texas A&M law school graduate who functions like an apprentice. During this three-month program, graduates receive $1,000 monthly stipends. Initially the program accommodates five students, which will gradually expand to nine and to a dozen.
It matches recent law school graduates with practitioners who share common specialties and values. The graduates work in the mentor’s office to learn the necessary skills of running a legal practice.
Recent law graduates were selected as the target audience because they’ve already undergone experiential learning in most law schools via externships, internships and clinics. The program provides “intensive training in the field they’ve selected” once they’ve made the commitment to operate a solo practice, Fortney suggests.
Funding for the program, which includes financing the stipends, stemmed from a $25,000 grant from the Texas Bar Foundation, a sum matched by Texas A&M Law School.
The ideal student accepted into the program “is genuinely interested in solo practice and representing people of modest means. The program recognizes that the need is out there and helps lawyers make a living and do good at the same time,” Fortney suggested.
While minority attorneys are not targeted specifically, Fortney expects that many will be attracted to it. The program “provides the training and support for people to go back to their community and service it.” In Texas, where there’s minimal free legal aid, the program “accelerates their growth in criminal defense practice, if that is what they decide to do,” Fortney noted.
Texas A&M University School of Law has attracted a 24 percent minority student body. In fall 2016, its 493 students were 72 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, six percent African-American, three percent Asian-American, and two percent bi-racial.
Furthermore, the program is “helping recent graduates see this (solo practice) as a viable career path. Most people who come to law school think they will work in a larger law firm and earn a six-figure salary,” Forney said, hinting that unemployment for law school graduates has risen and hiring for many top notch law firms has subsided.
The program emphasizes two sets of skills: 1) running an office and 2) mastering specialties such as family practice or criminal defense. “They learn about everything including negotiating settlements, making court appearances, the nuts and bolts of running a practice, and what happens when lawyers get into trouble because they don’t know to manage their practice,” Fortney noted.
Included in the three-month program is a practicum taught by a field supervisor or practicing attorney who covers the full spectrum of running a solo office. That entails “getting clients into the door, marketing, pricing, learning about insurance, being accountable, handling taxes,” she said.
The program at Texas Apprenticeship Program is decentralized, and that’s a distinguishing factor, Fortney noted. Instead of bringing recent graduates into a classroom as a group; they’re sent into the field and into specific communities to learn directly from solo practitioners. She called the program “an accelerator more than an incubator. We’re accelerating growth.”
Julissa Martinez, an experienced solo practitioner who runs a three-person office with a receptionist and case manager, is serving as mentor to recent Texas A&M Law school graduate Emily Hindman. Martinez’s office is located in Waxachachie, Texas, which is 35 miles south of Dallas in the Rio Grande Valley.
The town is filled with “citizens and clients who need help. They’re not finding enough qualified attorneys to tackle these cases,” Martinez explained, and by mentoring Hindman, she’s doing her part to attract more attorneys to practice there.
Martinez handles criminal defense cases in all of its guises—murders, assaults, misdemeanors, child protection. “I do the whole gamut,” she revealed.
In the office, Hindman operates as “a paralegal. She can take cases from beginning to end,” Martinez explained. Hindman has listened and observed some of Martinez’s client conferences and then can decide which cases she wants to pursue. Martinez supervises and guides her in the entire process of client management.
Martinez is teaching her apprentice about “the holistic approach to law” including the nuances attorneys don’t learn in law school. Martinez advises her on “the practice of law, what’s at stake, knowing the people who run the court system or when to hire an expert in DNA.” She shows her apprentice how to “file motions and petitions and deal with case managers in child protection cases.”
She also encourages her apprentice to be assertive. “Sometimes you have to tell clients what they don’t want to hear. You have to be realistic with them,” Martinez said. And she added, “You have to work hard. If not, you don’t get paid.”
The Texas Apprenticeship Program is particularly important in small towns, Martinez suggested. “Inevitably, families need a family law attorney, renters and landlords need contract attorneys, those involved in accidents need personal injury attorneys.” And locating qualified counsel can be difficult.
Emily Hindman, a 41-year-old, 2015 Texas A&M Law School graduate, previously ran her own outpatient counseling office for 15 years and prefers to run her own practice rather than be hired in a larger firm. “The thought of punching a time clock didn’t appeal to me,” she said, adding she prefers to set her own time frame and schedule.
By participating in the program and learning from Martinez, Hindman intends to learn more “about the business side of running a solo practice such as the accounting, payroll for office staff, time management, paying bills, using a trust account.” Having worked with Martinez a short time, she’s already observed many things she didn’t learn in law school including “negotiation, considering the big picture for your client, office management and how the local rules of the court affect your decisions.”
Hindman also wants to master “dealing with difficult clients, learning how to lean on office staff, how to work in high stress courtroom settings and ways to appropriately address the court.”
Fortney sees the program as a win/win for recent law school graduates and Texas communities. “It provides students with the training and support to pursue this career path, and when they do, it’s a win for the community because the community now has more and better qualified lawyers to represent individuals.” •