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There is a reality commonly ignored by the curriculum in most law schools: the largest segment of law graduates will eventually be solo or small firm practitioners. Even before the Great Recession, nearly two thirds of lawyers in the United States practiced in solo or small firms. Since 2008, trends show an increase in the number of recent law graduates that “hang a shingle.” According to a 2012 report of the American Bar Association, about three-quarters of lawyers in the United States work in private practice. Of those attorneys, about seventy percent are in solo or small firms. Many find themselves in this practice setting soon after graduation. The National Association for Law Placement (“NALP”) statistics for the class of 2013 show that 42% of graduates in private practice are working in firms with 2-10 lawyers; about 5% are already operating solo practices.

In short, more than half of the attorneys in the United States are small business owners – they are operating, managing and growing a law practice. As framed by Professor Luz Herrera, they must become “lawyer-entrepreneurs.” However, the law curriculum rarely presents students with opportunities to build the competencies necessary to operate a practice. As William Hornsby, staff counsel at the American Bar Association (“ABA”), has written: “Simply put, law school graduates are ill-prepared for the future they are most likely to pursue.”

A confluence of factors have brought solo and small practice to the forefront, including: the lagging job market for recent law graduates; the contracting of “biglaw” firm practice; the hope that regional and community practices will begin to fill the “justice gap” for low and middle income individuals; the entrepreneurial spirit of recent college graduates (“Millenials”), who long to be free agents and care deeply about their communities and work-life balance; and technological advances that have increased the efficiencies and decreased the overhead of operating a solo or small firm. Add to these factors that substantially decreasing law school enrollments have increased the pressure on law schools to innovate and recognize the realities of modern law practice.

In law schools, from the “MacCrate Report” to the “Carnegie Report” to “Best Practices,” to a number of familiar revisits to the “MacCrate Report,” we have seen over 20 years of debate about the role of “practical skills training” in the law school curriculum. I do not intend to rehash those debates here. To the extent that law schools have introduced more opportunities for practical training, it is a step toward building a solo practice curriculum, but it does not go far enough. There is still a gap between the doctrinal knowledge and practical competencies taught in law school and those necessary to successfully operate a solo practice. While most law schools currently provide thorough instruction in doctrinal law and legal reasoning and some exposure to “skills” training, they do not provide guidance in the “diverse set of business, legal, and interpersonal skills” that operating a law practice requires.

There is a small but growing chorus urging law schools to do more to prepare graduates who will operate their own practices. However, there have not yet been comprehensive or concrete proposals for the law school curriculum. To the extent law schools have responded to this need, they have done so by adding a Practice Management course and/or opening a post-graduate incubator or residency program. The Practice Management course is a key component of designing a solo practice curriculum but its two or three credits are far from a comprehensive exposure to the necessary competencies. Moreover, while post-graduate programs are important steps in assisting attorneys in gaining the competencies to operate their own practices, this education should be more widely available to all students and it should begin before graduation. The post-graduate programs should inform and supplement the curriculum but they cannot be the only answer to the disconnect between the curriculum and the way that law is actually practiced by such a great number of graduates.

It is the responsibility of law schools – especially those with a regional focus – to offer a suite of courses designed to position students to manage and operate their own practices. Borrowing from my experience designing a solo practice curriculum at the Touro Law Center, this Article provides the contours of a suite of curricular offerings for those students who have an interest in operating their own practices. At Touro, we have created a Solo & Small Practice Concentration (the “Concentration”). While still a work in progress, the core courses that make up the Concentration are consciously intended to build the business and interpersonal skills necessary to operate a solo practice. Students who opt to declare the Concentration and complete all of its requirements receive a notation on their transcript.

This Article begins by detailing the nature and goals of the core courses that we have identified as making up a solo and small practice curriculum. After describing the courses and their educational objectives, the Article identifies some of the hurdles in building the curriculum. It also identifies potential synergies between the curriculum and post-graduate programs. Finally, the Article concludes by briefly placing the solo and small practice curriculum within the current context: in light of a shifting legal landscape, law schools must recalibrate to better prepare graduates for the actual challenges of the legal market.

Source Publication

83 UMKC L. Rev. 949