By Megan E. Davis
In January, half a dozen new law school graduates hung their own shingles and opened practices in an office suite on Brickell Avenue in the heart of Miami’s financial district.
Less than a year later, all six firms are operating in the black, but that’s not all, said Alex Acosta, dean of Florida International University’s College of Law.
Thanks to the school’s LawBridge program, the young practitioners are also becoming well-versed in ethical and professional standards central to practicing law and in their responsibilities to the public as members of the profession, he said.
Traditionally, new law school graduates take jobs with established law firms or clerkships with judges to learn those skills not taught in law schools — how to actually practice law and run a firm, said Tony Santos, the director of the LawBridge program.
But many of those opportunities for new lawyers have dried up in the past two decades, and the economic downturn has accelerated that trend in recent years, he said.
Acosta articulated the problem facing new graduates by repeating a question on the lips of many throughout the profession: “Where are tomorrow’s lawyers going to be trained?”
Seeking to answer that question for its graduates, Florida International launched LawBridge, a legal residency program, this year.
Mirroring similar components of a medical school residency and a business school entrepreneurial incubator, the program targets recent graduates seeking to establish their own firms, Santos said.
This year, one of those new lawyers was Gregorie Dolce.
“One of the reasons I was very interested in a solo practice was because, as the mother of three young children, I wanted to have more control in my work-life balance,” she said.
Dolce and her peers received office space at an affordable rate as well as access to a host of supports necessary to running their new businesses, including accounting services, opportunities for financial planning, and advice from marketing professionals, Santos said.
“It’s a fairly comprehensive program,” he said. “We touch on every aspect a solo practitioner might encounter.”
Using those resources, Dolce built her practice focusing on international and commercial litigation, the Dolce Law Firm, from the ground up.
“It’s allowed me to establish myself fairly quickly,” Dolce said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of focused attention and valuable feedback on what it takes to establish a successful practice. Being in the program with other young attorneys has also allowed us to bounce ideas off each other and learn from each other. That’s been very comforting.”
Dolce and her peers are developing their own client bases and managing all the business aspects of their firms, Santos said.
Additionally, the program places a high emphasis on professionalism, ethics, and risk management and offers numerous lecture series and courses from members of the judiciary, ethics commissions, and other seasoned professionals, he said.
To highlight the new lawyers’ obligation to the public, the program requires the participants complete 500 hours of pro bono work during their two years in the program, he said.
“It’s a fairly high standard,” Santos said. “We felt it was an important one to put into their DNA at an early stage in their career development.”
The program, open to Florida International graduates, has space for 12 residents, he said.
“That’s dictated by our physical space, the amount of space for folks to inhabit our suite of offices,” Santos said. “We may find in January that we top out and may face the somewhat unsavory prospect of turning people away. It’s not our objective to become exclusive in any way; we believe every lawyer should get this kind of training, whether as a clerk for a judge, a young associate in a law firm, or through other structured training programs.”
Santos said he’s aware of a handful of other residency programs offered by law schools in the United States and of about a dozen more that are in the works.
Acosta said he welcomes the idea of more and of expanding Florida International’s program.
“Programs like LawBridge are necessary to make sure new graduates are introduced to the profession the right way,” he said.
“It’s a tough market, and if graduates go off on their own, it’s not only financially harder, but it is also harder to learn the professionalism and ethics you gain from programs like LawBridge.”