Rutgers Law School Bridges Gap
Attorney Siobhán Kinealy stopped speaking mid-sentence as colleague John Boehler handed her a five-inch-thick manila envelope. On it was stamped a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs return address. Kinealy had filed a Freedom of Information Act request six months earlier to get the military records of an incapacitated client—a World War II veteran who had been denied benefits. Getting records from Veterans Affairs is no easy task, and she’d followed up with numerous calls and reached out to legislators for help so she could appeal the decision.
“Brilliant!’’ Kinealy said as she scanned the documents.
In her first year as a lawyer, the 2014 Rutgers Law School graduate has handled a gamut of cases in state and federal courts, from veteran’s issues to consumer fraud, estate matters, and even an international child custody battle.
“I’ve gained a lot of experience and confidence,” said Kinealy.
She is one of six lawyers in Rutgers Law Associates Fellowship Program, created by Rutgers Law School to provide affordable legal representation to the community and serve as a training ground for newly minted attorneys. The program is being studied as a model by the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Blue Ribbon Commission.
Rutgers is at the forefront of a movement that is picking up steam across the country. The law school created the nation’s first true post-doctoral curriculum for new lawyers with the opening of Rutgers Law Associates in January 2014, said Andrew J. Rothman, a law school associate dean and the firm’s managing attorney.
“These new lawyers are learning how to practice law and run a law firm, something that unfortunately does not happen in our country’s legal education system,” Rothman said. The fellowship program is his brainchild, which took root in 1996.
“I knew a lot of people in medicine, and asked if they’d had the opportunity not to do residency, would they have taken it? They all said no! They wouldn’t have become the doctors they are without it,’’ Rothman said.
Rutgers Law Associates Fellowship Program received start-up funds from the Sacco Trust and was subsidized by Rutgers Law School in its first year. But the firm has become self-sustaining this year and is poised to grow, he said.
The six associates each receive a $30,000 stipend for the year, their tuition and fees are covered, and as post-doctoral students, they are able to defer payment on their student loans. A supervising associate will come on board in January to mentor associates on more routine matters while also taking cases.
Rothman believes all law schools should provide the missing link between learning the law and practicing it.
“Even with robust clinical programs, law schools don’t give students enough practical experience, and law firms don’t train new associates,” he said. “It is essential for lawyers to have some experience as generalists,’’ he said. For example, “it’s inconceivable to be a family lawyer if you don’t know anything about bankruptcy.”
“We have shown that this (model) is financially possible and sustainable,’’ Rothman said. His goal is to expand Rutgers’ fellowship by one or two associates each year. Creating a university program was not new for Rothman. As assistant dean of Parsons School of Design in New York City in the 1980s, he drew up the plans for Parsons’ Master of Architecture and its Jazz and Contemporary Music programs.
Widow Peggy Sterns became one of the first clients. Sterns had obtained temporary emergency custody of her step-grandson, who has special needs, but the child’s biological parents were trying to get him back.
“I reached out to so many lawyers, and no one would help me. Rutgers said yes, and they have helped me every step of the way,’’ said Sterns, who relies on Social Security Disability Insurance and a portion of her late husband’s pension for income.
Rutgers Law Associates helped her keep custody of her grandson under the state’s kinship guardianship law last year, and in April, Boehler obtained a ruling that prevents the birth parents from continually challenging Sterns’ custody.
“I am not exaggerating when I tell you, Rutgers helped save this child’s life,’’ she said. “My grandson is thriving —finally! Because of them, he is 100 percent protected.”
Boehler, 26, is also helping Sterns write a will, and she plans to use the firm to pursue adopting her grandson, now 10.
The associates whose year is coming to an end recently talked about their experiences. Three had spent the morning in a continuing education class while the others were busy handling billing in the 256-square-foot office they all share on the third floor of the law school’s Center for Law and Justice in Newark.
“We hit the ground running pretty hard,’’ 41-year-old Bruce Lee recalled. Each associate has 15 to 20 cases on their docket at any given time, and together they have helped more than 200 clients.
The lawyers took over the dockets of the 2014 fellows and some were arguing cases in court their first week. They were hired in November and spent six weeks getting up to speed on their cases.
Her first week, Alexandra Morgan had to submit an order to show cause in a custody dispute and realized she wasn’t sure what to include in it. Rothman used it as a teachable moment for the whole staff.
“We drove him nuts! We were constantly in his office making sure we had things right,’’ recalled Morgan, 28. “The stakes are so high, especially in custody cases.’’
The associates also turned to each other for advice. In some ways, being in close quarters helps.
“If I have a question, I can just lean over and ask, what you think about this?” said attorney Simone Mulla, who will soon open her own practice in Morristown.
“We’ve been exposed to the practical realities of practicing law, from understanding how judges all have their own personalities, to learning how to manage clients’ expectations,” said Lee, a former neuroscientist who intends to become a public defender.
Morgan hadn’t known what area of law to pursue in her career, but she discovered a penchant for family law during the fellowship. The program also improved her job prospects: Adversaries in two cases have asked her to submit a resume to their firms, she said.
Kinealy, 31, had every intention of pursuing international and human rights law, but has found her niche in surrogate court. “Trusts and estate law is very rigorous and academic, but also a very human aspect of the law,’’ she said.
Jeremy Jackson, 29, said he believes in the program’s mission of serving people who couldn’t otherwise afford legal representation. “A lot of our clients are people who started their cases pro se, but got in over their heads and needed a lawyer to help get back on track,’’ he said.
Law school low bono programs are catching on around the country.
In October, City University of New York School of Law announced a partnership with the New York City Bar Association and 19 major law firms to create the Court Square Law Project. The firms pledged $1.9 million for the low bono effort, which will begin taking clients in 2016.
A similar project is about to open in Washington, D.C. Georgetown University Law Center has partnered with two major firms—DLA Piper and Arent Fox—to launch the DC Affordable Law Firm. Other law schools have adopted similar models.
At the planning level, Rutgers opted against the independent nonprofit law firm model adopted by the New York City Bar Association, Arizona State University, University of Utah, and Georgetown Law Schools.
“Training and education of the fellows is a driving mission of the Rutgers program, Rothman said. Rutgers fellows are not employees, but students enrolled in postgraduate coursework, and the legal work they perform is an integral part of the curriculum, he said.
Rutgers Law Associates alumna Tabitha Y. Clark said the fellowship was a game changer. While attending Rutgers Law School, she participated in legal clinics and did a summer internship at a public defender’s office, but “I felt ill-prepared to step out and say I’m ready to practice law,’’ she said.
Clark embraced the immersion of the fellowship and having a hand in shaping the new firm. She and her colleagues worked closely, figuring out what made good cases and researching all aspects of law.
“Going through step by step made me unafraid to do it on my own,’’ said Clark, who now practices family law as The Law Offices of Tabitha Y. Clark in Kingston. “The practice of law is not just the practice of law; it’s the business of law,’’ she said.
Three of Clark’s clients from her fellowship year are still with her, and she has accepted referrals from the program at a reduced rate.
Clark, 26, said she made job connections through the fellowship. “I’ve gotten offers from firms small and large,” she said. For now, she will pursue her solo practice. “I’m “I’m doing what I want to do.”
Photo by Amanda Brown