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    Staying Alive: Reality Check: Trying Out Small-Community Practice

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    Wisconsin Lawyer Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 80, No. 10, October 2007

    When Nicole Marklein started at the U.W. Law School, she envisioned working someday in a big firm in a large city. During her first two years of law school, her interests shifted to wanting to work in a small firm. And now she's considering looking for a job in a small community after graduation.

    Nudging her in that direction was her experience this summer in a clerkship at Cross, Jenks, Mercer and Maffei in Baraboo. "I had a misconception about practicing in a small town," Marklein says. "But that was blown out of the water after seeing how the attorneys in my firm practice."

    At one point she held the view, perhaps shared by many of her classmates, that bigger firms have higher quality attorneys. "As I've gotten to know more and more attorneys," she says, "I've realized that's not the case. There are some phenomenal attorneys who practice in smaller communities."

    Adam Walsh, a U.W. Law School student originally from Milwaukee, did a summer clerkship at Mubarak, Radcliffe & Berry S.C. in Tomah. One of the reasons he applied for the clerkship was to try out a small community. "You can't just visit for a day to learn what it's like to live there," he says. "You have to do it. You learn the truth of the situation." He adds that he definitely will consider jobs in smaller communities after he graduates.

    When his summer in Tomah started, Walsh felt trepidations about "finding anybody to talk to and hang out with," he admits. But he met other young professionals and enjoyed social activities. As for the clerkship itself, "I learned more halfway through than I thought I would learn all summer," he says.

    Marklein and Walsh were two of five U.W. students, all between their 2L and 3L years, who participated in a new clerkship program launched this summer. Three other students had placements at LaRowe, Gerlach & Roy LLP, Reedsburg; Johns, Flaherty & Collins S.C., La Crosse; and Roethe Krohn Pope LLP, Edgerton. Funding for the clerkships was provided by a special legacy to the U.W. Law School from the late Judge Edmund Arpin of Neenah.

    The program, which is a two-year trial project under the direction of U.W. law professors Ralph Cagle and Gretchen Viney, sprang out of a meeting at the law school last spring. Some 18 lawyers from small to mid-sized communities met with Dean Kenneth Davis to voice their concerns - one of which is attracting and retaining young lawyers. The clerkship is a way for law students to learn about the small-community option, Cagle says. He notes that 40 students applied for the five slots.

    "Getting firms to commit to this was an interesting dilemma," Cagle says. "We actually went through about 16 firms before we found five that would do this." Some firms, he explains, said they weren't ready to take on a summer clerk. Some had hired an associate within the last year or two and needed to direct their attention there. "In other cases," Cagle reports, "people said, `We wouldn't know what to do with a person like that. There are five of us, and the youngest guy has been here for 18 years.'"

    That comment, Cagle believes, is indicative of a problem in many small-community firms. They don't feel they have the time or money to take on an associate. But, in fact, adding an associate could bring profit into the firm - and stability. "A lot of baby boomers out there are getting close to retirement age," Cagle notes. "They face the question of what's next. Are they going to have to close their doors?"

    Thus, Cagle views the summer clerkship program as a learning opportunity not only for law students but also for small law firms in small to mid-sized communities. Can they manage an additional person? Do they have enough work? What complications or benefits would adding an associate bring? "This program," Cagle says, "is a low-cost, painless way for firms to test those issues."

     




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