Bridge to Practice Programs: The Conversation Continues

NALP Bulletin, June 2013

Bridge-to-practice programs at law schools were the topic of a well-attended program at NALP's 2013 Annual Education Conference in Tampa. As panelists described the bridge-to-practice programs at their respective schools and the audience participated with questions and discussion, it was evident that these programs continue to evolve and that there is no one-size-fits-all model.

The general definition of these programs is that they provide recent law school graduates with an opportunity to develop and enhance their practical legal skills as they transition into the practice of law, generally by funding some type of fixed-duration, post-graduate work in one of several kinds of legal workplaces, including public interest organizations, government agencies, judicial offices, or private employers. Beneath that general definition, however, there is a great deal of variation in how these programs are implemented, as both the conference session and NALP research have shown.

For example, NALP's survey on bridge-to-practice programs as implemented for the Class of 2011 revealed that schools funded anywhere from a single to over 100 fellows, with funding levels ranging from a few thousand dollars to well over $1M. This research was followed by a second round, consisting of a follow-up interview with schools that agreed to answer more in-depth questions on certain aspects of their programs for the Class of 2011 and to provide employment outcomes for bridge-to-practice fellows from that class. Although the schools participating in these interviews span the country and include both private and public schools, the small number — 14 — means that the findings are more anecdotal than necessarily reflective of the much larger number of schools with such programs. Some of the findings of this second round of research are highlighted below. (For the full report of survey findings see www.nalp.org/bridge_to_practice_report, which also includes a link to the follow-up findings.)

  • Eleven schools were able to report on the employment status of their fellows as of February 15, 2012, and eight had some information on employment status as of August 2012, or about 15 months after the majority of this class graduated. Note that because some programs are structured to have more than one, or rolling, start dates, which may be after February 15, the August figures include some individuals who started their fellowship after February 15, 2012. As of February 15, 2012, the majority (60%) of the approximately 470 fellows accounted for were still in their fellowships. At some schools, all were. Most of the rest were employed in some way, though the exact nature of the employment was not always known. Where it was known, nearly all were with the fellowship employer or in a related position, with "related" defined as there being a connection between the kind of work done or the subject matter expertise in the fellowship and the new job. As of February 15, 2012, a few former fellows were engaging in other activities such as pursuing an LLM or in the Teach for America program.
  • As of August 2012, about one in ten fellows were still in their fellowships; about 60% were known to be employed, usually with the fellowship employer or in a related position; and a handful were either not employed or pursuing an LLM. The status of about one-quarter of the fellows at these eight schools was not known as of August 2012.
  • All the schools participating in the follow-up calls about the Class of 2011 program continued their program for the Class of 2012, and as of early in 2013 had funded well over 500 fellows from that class, with the number expected to grow as the funding cycle continued. Every school also expressed a desire to continue the program for the Class of 2013, and in most cases continuation of the program was a certainty, though the funding level may not have been known at that point. At some schools the bridge-to-practice program is a long-term commitment, especially in the public interest realm, and it is a program that alumni like and that local employers in some cases have come to expect.

The latter observation concerning employer expectations, with some employers having come to expect the free help and in fact wanting the graduates for longer periods of time than the fellowships can provide, also was a point of discussion at the conference session. Points of tension can arise between employers who would like help for more than three or six months and the goal of the program, which is generally to provide graduates with an advantage in securing long-term law-related employment.

The conference session discussion also corroborated the research findings that tracking employment outcomes of bridge-to-practice fellows is not as complete as it should be. Such tracking is critical to measuring the value of these programs, and is recommended as a best practice. Knowing the bottom-line results is surely important information for any school wishing to continue its program. There was also an interest in learning more about the programs in a comprehensive manner.

NALP plans to do just that, with a survey in the fall to answer additional questions about bridge-to-practice programs and, most important, to more thoroughly document the employment outcomes for fellows from the Class of 2012. School members should watch their in-boxes for this survey. If your school does not have such a program, please respond to the survey anyway, answering "no" to that initial question. This will help NALP gauge the prevalence of the programs. If your school did have a program in place for the Class of 2012, note that the survey will include questions on the employment outcomes of your fellows, both as of February 15, 2013, and as of August 2013. Your participation in the survey will help provide answers to questions of interest to you and your colleagues.

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