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June 14, 2010 5:22 PM

The Howrey/Drinker Apprenticeships: One Year In

Posted by Zach Lowe

Our colleague Karen Sloan of The National Law Journal gets at a question we've been wondering about for a while now: What are the early returns on those apprenticeship programs at Howrey, Drinker Biddle & Reath, and Frost Brown Todd going? You know the ones--where first-years from the class of 2009 agreed to take reduced salaries in return for a spot as a first-year apprentice lawyer, a role in which they'd train more, bill less, and spend more time in client offices. The idea was for the firms to keep the pipeline to law schools open, address the concern clients have about paying big bucks for inexperienced first-years, and deepen relationships all around. 

Not surprisingly, firm higher-ups who devised the programs are thrilled one year in, and the apprentices themselves seem thankful for the jobs and the experience, according to Sloan's story in the NLJ. Firms have likely lost money on the programs so far, but they knew that going in, Sloan reports. They bill the apprentices out at severely reduced rates--or not at all--and the partners mentoring them have sacrificed some billable hours to help the first-years, the NLJ reports. Cutting the first-year salaries to $125,000 (at Howrey, where the apprenticeship lasts two years) and $105,000 (at Drinker Biddle, where the apprenticeship period is just six months) only covers some of those costs, the story says. "There is certainly a lost opportunity with the lower billing requirement," Chris Habel, chair of Frost Brown Todd's attorney advancement committee, told the NLJ. "At the same time, because we've had first-year associates sitting in client offices on secondments, that's generating work for us. This is an investment by the firm."

All three firms plan to continue the apprenticeship model with their incoming class of 2010 graduates, and Nixon Peabody also is considering the apprenticeship idea, the NLJ reports. But there is some skepticism about whether the firms can really maintain the model when the economy recovers. Will top students still be willing to exchange $40,000 in salary for the chance to do what is, in theory, more fulfilling work? And will the firms really resist the temptation to ratchet first-year billing rates back up once clients need more work? 

We'll have to check back in. 

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