Christina Squiers has one more year of law school to go. But she won't be spending much time in class next year, and already has a job guaranteed after she graduates.
Squiers, 23, is one of the lucky few chosen for an innovative experiment at the University of Minnesota that will largely replace the third year of law school with hands-on experience.
On Monday, the law school will formally present the program, known as the Minnesota Law Public Interest Residency, which will debut this fall.
While virtually all law schools have hands-on training programs, this is one of the first in the nation to offer a working alternative to the traditional third year, said Prof. Mark Kappelhoff, who created the program.
"I kind of modeled it after a medical school," he said. "You have a faculty member who's your supervisor … but you are mostly spending your time outside the four walls of the law school, learning how to practice law."
Instead of juggling a full load of classes, Squiers will work 32 hours a week at the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office next year, writing legal briefs and otherwise filling the role of a young lawyer. It's a chance, she said, to jump start her career. "We're out there in the community actually practicing law and learning on our feet," she said.
As part of the program, the students pay tuition and take one course a semester while working essentially full time, for free, for one of the participating city or county prosecutors or public defenders. When school is finished, the fledgling lawyers will get to stay on the job for a second year, with full pay, once they pass the bar.
The idea of a guaranteed job was "a really big appeal," said Alli Holznecht, a 25-year-old law student who will spend her "residency" at the Ramsey County attorney's office. "I thought it seemed too good to be true at first," she said, especially at a time when so many newly minted lawyers struggle to find work. "I really wanted to find a job within the public sector," she said. "Often, that can be really hard to get your foot in the door."
Typically, law students spend their first year on the basics, such as constitutional law, and the next two years on electives and specialized courses, such as business or immigration law, said Amanda Furst, the public interest assistant director at the U law school. But she said she's not worried that students will be missing out by choosing the residency program instead.
"This isn't for all students," she said. "This is [for] a particular type of student that knows in law school fairly early on what they want to do, and has the skills to be able to do it." This fall, seven students, out of a class of about 220, will be enrolled in the residency.
Holznecht said she doesn't worry, either. "I do feel like I've kind of honed the skills that I really need," she said. "Classroom learning is wonderful and the professors are great at the U, but it doesn't prepare you fully for being in the courtroom, which is what I want to do."
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who will be her boss during her residency, agrees. "I think experiential learning is so important," he said. He recalls that, as a law student himself, he once spent "like 45 hours" writing a single legal memo. "The real world is, you don't have 45 hours to devote to a memo," he said. "An attorney's going to say, 'I'm going to need this by tomorrow.' "
In fact, many law students and lawyers alike have long questioned the benefit of the third year of school, said Tim Groshens, executive director of the Minnesota State Bar Association. "Most law students feel they are ready to get out [and] engaged into the legal professional faster than the law schools think they are," he said. The old joke, he added, is that "the first year of law school you're frightened to death … and the third year you're bored to death."
Squiers, meanwhile, says she's ready for a change. "This is giving me that job security, and also allowing me to work in a field that gives back to the community."