Rutgers Law Associates succeeds as new firm in Newark

Unique fellowship program provides new bar members with $30,000 stipends

By Jeff Tolvin

Rutgers Law School has figured out how to ease the often overwhelming transition of new law school graduates into the legal profession - pay them, provide the clients and mentor them for a year.

Rutgers Law Associates is poised for growth: In its second year, revenue is exceeding expenses and net income will be used to expand the program.

The school launched Rutgers Law Associates last year in Newark with six new members of the bar receiving $30,000 stipends as one-year, post-doctoral fellows. These newly minted lawyers represent low- and moderate-income clients in various litigation and other matters while learning courtroom procedure, business development and professional responsibility.

Many of the more than 200 U.S. law schools, including Rutgers, operate or are associated with pro bono clinics, enabling students to gain real-word legal experience without charging fees. Rutgers Law Associates (RLA), however, functions as a small general practice law firm - believed to be the only law school "practice" of its kind - billing clients $50 per hour, hundreds of dollars less than experienced attorneys command.

Andrew Rothman, an associate dean who created the program, refers to the RLA model as a "lo-bono" on-the-job learning experience, analogous to the first paid position for most medical school graduates.

"Law schools have never developed the medical residency model," says Rothman, RLA's 'managing attorney' and mentor and a former practicing lawyer. "As a result many new attorneys experience a tough beginning at law firms that expect them to bill 2,000 hours or more each year. They've had little or no opportunity to develop their skills in practice."

RLA has become self-sustainable, as designed, and poised for growth. In its second year, revenue is exceeding expenses, and is soon to erase a year-one operating deficit from expenses before the client-base and referral networks were strongly developed. Any net income will be used to expand the program.

The six current fellows will be succeeded by eight new fellows next year, with 10 projected for the following year and 12 for 2018.

The $50 hourly rate has helped generate up to 25 daily inquiries and a waiting list for services. Some prospective RLA clients are referred to Rutgers law graduates now in small and solo practices, including former fellows.

Cases often bring the fellows face-to-face with seasoned attorneys, occasionally in high-profile matters. One of this year's fellows, Siobhan Kinealy, 31, is representing a parent in an international child custody dispute in federal court, Kinealy's first trial. Her opposing counsel are a partner and an experienced associate attorney at K&L Gates, LLP, one of the nation's largest, most prestigious law firms.

"None of my peers now working at law firms have had the amount of client contact and exposure to the actual practice of law that I've experienced in just seven months," Kinealy says.

Tabitha Y. Clark, 26, eagerly sought one of the six initial fellowships in 2014 to gain experience. "It's without a doubt the best decision I made," she says.

One matter Clark assumed as a fellow - and carried with her to the solo practice she later opened in Kingston, New Jersey - could be precedent-setting. She is awaiting confirmation that the New Jersey Attorney General's office will comply with a New Jersey Superior Court order to issue the state's first three-parent birth certificate for a child now 6 years old.

The child had been living with its adoptive mother and biological mother, a married female couple, one of whom is Clark's client. The couple, now divorced, and the child's biological father, have equal custody rights. Due to an unforeseen change in circumstances, the parties are now in litigation to modify the current division of parenting time, among other issues.

The fellows welcome the unique RLA opportunity to develop their talents. In extremely complex matters, they collaborate closely with Rothman and may consult with experienced attorneys in Rothman's professional network who've volunteered to assist.

"RLA was created to teach new lawyers how to practice law the right way," says Rothman, "and we attempt to do whatever we can, with the resources we can muster, to make that happen."

Published: Thu, Sep 10, 2015