Law school program offers a legal leg-up

Jill Hiraizumi started her legal practice on a shoestring.

The Whittier Law School graduate often delivered her estate planning advice across a client's kitchen table.

"When I needed office space, I used an attorney friend's conference room," said Hiraizumi, 29, who started a solo practice after passing the bar in late 2013. "That wears thin really, really quickly."

A new program at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa gives recent graduates like Hiraizumi office space and more. It matches them with low-income clients, who get a break on the cost of legal services. The clients, referred by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, earn too much to qualify for free legal advice from the society.

Ten attorneys were chosen for the Whittier Legal Access Program, which started last week. Participants are provided office space, staff, training and mentoring. Most are recent grads who aim to strike out on their own rather than join a large firm.

"It provides a leg up," Hiraizumi said. "It's hard to get clients on your own when you don't have experience to back you up."

Hiraizumi, whose specialty is estate and tax planning, said she has been matched with 10 clients so far. She helped them with child support and divorce issues, which gave her hands-on experience in family law, an area where she'd like to expand her practice.

Hiraizumi meets clients in the Legal Aid Society's offices in Santa Ana. The program's new office will open next door this spring in a former Dairy Queen.

Marty Pritikin, Whittier Law School associate dean, said he modeled the program on Touro Law Center's law firm "incubator" at City University of New York. In recent years, more than a dozen similar programs have sprung up around the country, including two in San Diego, he said.

"My view is law schools need to rethink their relationship to their grads," Pritikin said. "Education and training doesn't end when they graduate."

Students often are torn between making money in a corporate practice and the prospect of scraping by in public-interest law, Pritikin said.

Whittier graduate Christopher Markelz, 30, said he always knew he wanted to work with people, "not just push paper." The Santa Ana resident was already advising at the Legal Aid Society and is now able to take advantage of what the Whittier program has to offer.

The work with clients is rewarding, he said. "You have to tell them here's the good and here's the bad. Here's what we can do to fight," he said. "I tell them I don't have 20 years of experience, but I'm going to work hard for you."

The program also could give a leg up to Whittier graduates entering the labor market.

In 2013, 57% of law school graduates nationwide found full-time jobs within nine months of graduation, according to American Bar Assn. figures. In the same period, 40% of Whittier grads found full-time jobs, the association's numbers show.

But Pritikin said helping with employment isn't the program's goal. He said Whittier's survey of 2011 grads, conducted 15 months after graduation, showed that 70% had found jobs.

Pritikin said the program is meant to prove to recent law school grads that "you really can do well by doing good."

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