PUBLISHED:January 23, 2012

Building Bridges. Creating Connections.

The Bridge to Practice program is helping new graduates navigate a volatile market as they launch their careers in the public sector and beyond.

Laura Bull ’10 credits the Bridge to Practice program with helping her unlock a door that seemed all but stuck: landing her “dream job” as a public defender, right out of law school, during an economic downturn.

“The way the world is now, when you want to do a somewhat specialized job, you only have two options — to have summered there or [to do a] Bridge to Practice,” says Bull, who came to Duke Law with the goal of becoming a public interest lawyer. “These are organizations that don’t hire outsiders, particularly.”

Once she was in the door at The Legal Aid Society of New York, working on the civil side in its law reform unit, she was able to both prove her value as an attorney and develop the relationships that would facilitate a permanent position as a criminal defense attorney.

“I feel so grateful and appreciative for the [Law School’s] awareness of the needs of recent graduates,” Bull says of the Bridge to Practice program. “I could not have afforded to just not work or to not get paid at all. And just having the sponsorship of the school — having it be a program and having some stipend made it easier to work with [potential employers.] If you know where you want to be, I can’t imagine a better program to help you get in the door and end up where you want. I don’t think I’d be what I’m doing now if not for it.”

Getting a foothold

Duke Law School administrators launched the Bridge to Practice program in spring 2008 to help a handful of students who were committed to public service careers but found it difficult to get that all-important foothold on their first job.

“We were aware that 10 or so students each year were having difficulty getting into public service positions, including government jobs with district attorneys’ offices, public defenders’ offices, and public interest organizations,” says Dean David F. Levi. “Getting these jobs is hard for a number of reasons: Some of these employers require bar passage before considering a graduate. Some only will hire graduates who have interned in their offices or are otherwise known to the office. Some of the offices are interested in seeing how dedicated and hungry for the work the particular student is.”

So Levi, and the cadre of talented staff who comprise Duke Law’s Career Center, built the Bridge to Practice fellowship program to provide graduating students with eight-week post-bar exam fellowships for work in government offices and nonprofit agencies. The program was a win-win proposition: Graduates would gain a substantive work experience that advanced their efforts to secure permanent employment in the public sector; employers would gain the assistance of a well-trained and eager Duke Law graduate — at no cost. Participating graduates would receive a stipend paid by Duke Law (supported by alumni contributions) in exchange for a commitment to work throughout their fellowship with career counselors and mentors to continue their job searches.

The model proved highly successful: In that first year, seven of nine participants secured permanent employment through their Bridge positions.

“Through the Bridge to Practice, I was able to continue working on cases and prepare for one of my DA interviews, where I was asked to ‘run the courtroom,’” said Kyle Pousson ’08, whose fellowship led to a permanent position with the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, where he is now in his third year of practice. “Because the office knew me well and I was working there before and after my bar studies, I was in a great position to become an ADA once I had passed the bar.”

The Bridge to Practice program also put Duke Law in a good position to help students caught in the disruption in the legal job market following the 2008 economic crash. In spring 2009, the Career Center expanded the Bridge program to assist students whose career plans had fallen prey to the downturn. More employers were invited to participate, including small and boutique law firms. But the model remained the same: the Bridge offered graduates a path toward permanent employment and an opportunity to prove to newly reluctant-to-hire employers that they were a good investment.

Since 2008, Bridge to Practice fellows have worked around the country with nonprofit and advocacy organizations, district attorneys offices, courts, general counsels’ offices, and small law firms. Altogether, 56 graduates participated in the Bridge to Practice program between 2008 and 2010; of those, 46 secured permanent employment thanks to their Bridge positions. Many continued in permanent roles with their Bridge employers; others found that the connections and skills developed in their Bridge positions led them to opportunities they might not have had otherwise.

[About 35 graduates of the Class of 2011 were participating in Bridge positions in fall 2011; many had turned into or led to permanent employment by press time. Duke Law reports employment data to the American Bar Association and National Association of Legal Career Professionals nine months after graduation and will post full data for the Class of 2011 on the Law School’s website.]

“It would not have been possible for me to get my job without my Bridge fellowship,” says Bethan Haaga ’10, whose fellowship with the Montgomery County Public Defender’s Office in Maryland led to her full-time position there. “Some public defenders’ offices have well-established hiring programs, but this office is not one of them. You really have to volunteer here until a position opens up.”

Haaga says the funding from the fellowship gave her the “luxury” of pursuing the position she wanted, and the formality of the fellowship gave her confidence in her work and her role in the office. She consulted regularly with Duke Law Associate Deans Kim Bart ’02 and Bruce Elvin ’93 throughout her fellowship, gaining “extremely helpful” guidance for how best to position herself for a full-time job. And when the job opened up, she was the obvious choice. “They had known me for months; they knew my work.” She credits the Bridge to Practice program’s combination of funding, support, and structure for helping her land “the best job I could ever hope for.”
“In most cases, I think it would be really hard to get a job in the public interest field without a Bridge program, even in good economic times,” Haaga adds. “They just can’t afford to hire in the ways that firms can.”

Breaking into a small or boutique law firm can present similar challenges; most do not have the capacity to recruit at law schools, and many prefer to hire associates with previous experience. Jason Rathod ’10, who obtained his position with the Washington, D.C., boutique class-action firm of Mason LLP (now Whitfield, Bryson and Mason) through a Bridge fellowship, tapped into the Duke Law alumni network to line up a Bridge that would position him for a career in litigation.

“I knew I wanted to litigate class actions on the plaintiff side,” says Rathod. “During my third year, I told my career adviser about my aspirations, and he provided the names of alums that I should talk to. I found that practitioners in niche firms are passionate about their work and eager to help law students and young lawyers break into their field.”

His meeting with Gary Mason ’87 led to a Bridge position and then to an offer of permanent employment with Mason’s firm, where Rathod now litigates lawsuits related to consumer protection, worker rights, and civil rights.

“When I connected with Gary Mason about the possibility of working for him, he told me that the firm rarely hires, but that if I could show I would add value to the firm, he’d keep me on,” Rathod says. “The Bridge fellowship was the perfect way for my firm to minimize risk and for me to prove that I could excel at the cases assigned to me.”

Meeting the challenge of a changed market

Given the modest pace of the national economic recovery, making sure that every graduating student who wants a job has the resources and opportunities needed to land one will continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future, says Elvin, who oversees Duke Law’s career and professional development programs. He says his office will continue to call upon the commitment and involvement of the entire Law School community, from staff to faculty to alumni in every sector of practice, to assist graduating students.

“We are working every possible angle, every possible idea that comes up,” he says. “But we also are pushing our students hard. They have to be the ones who drive the job search. They have to own it and work for it. And when they do, we are able to deploy a broad array of resources in advocating on the students’ behalf and helping them secure the jobs they want. Overall, they have done a great job these last few years, in the face of really tough circumstances. Our institutional employment record really is a reflection of our students’ efforts and how hard they work, as well as the entire Duke Law community, including alumni and faculty, and the broad commitment to supporting students through their three years here and long afterward.”

And the successes of the Bridge to Practice program have ensured that the program is here to stay, Levi says. “Many of our most talented students want to work in the public sector, and we are committed to doing everything we can to support them,” says Levi. “The Bridge has been incredibly successful in helping them gain traction in positions that might otherwise be off limits to new law graduates, especially in the current economic climate. It has helped a number of other students who want to work for smaller firms that do not recruit in traditional ways. And it has helped those few students who are unsure of their paths at graduation find surer footing and develop confidence in choosing a career path.

“The Bridge, at its core, is a chance for our graduates to demonstrate how well-prepared they are for work,” Levi says. “That they are able to make themselves invaluable to these employers is a reflection on these students, their hard work, their determination, and the quality of the education they receive here at Duke.” — Melinda Myers Vaughn
Sidebar for News

The architecture of a bridge

1 The graduate: Patrick Joost ’11

Joost’s goal was to join a litigation practice. “I spent one summer clerking for a civil court judge in Houston, and last summer I worked in the District Attorney’s office in Houston. I really like being in a courtroom.” A Texas native, he also wanted to find a job in his home state.

2 The firm: Lehtola & Cannatti, Dallas

A small civil litigation firm with three partners, including found­ing partner Patricia Lehtola ’84, the firm primarily serves clients in the finance industry, with some business in railroads and the health industry. The firm takes cases to trial.  

3 The Bridge:

Thanks to referrals from staff in the Alumni and Development Office and Career Center at Duke, Joost connected with Lehtola and arranged a Bridge fellowship for fall 2011. Joost was able to take on a variety of assignments — drafting pleadings and research memos, attending hearings, and more. “It gave me the opportunity to work for a month and let the partners kind of see who I am and allowed them to become comfortable with me. I don’t think they ever would have hired a first-year lawyer outside of this program. So it sort of gave me the opportunity to work my way into a job. I don’t think I would have had the offer otherwise.”

4 The partner: Patricia Lehtola ’84

The firm’s partners initially had no inten­tion of hiring Joost, nor did they feel any obligation to do so. They certainly were not looking to hire a first-year associate. But Lehtola was happy to give a fellow Duke graduate a place to work while he continued his search. “It turned out that we had a lot of work that was suitable for him, and he surprised us by being a lot more capable than we thought a first-year would be. Whatever we gave him, he came back very, very quickly and, more importantly, with a very good work product. And very shortly we were start­ing to be impressed with his work ethic. Somewhere in there — it just seemed like the third week he was there, the part­ners started talking amongst ourselves about how well he had done. And then we decided to make him an offer.”

The outcome:

Joost actually came off his Bridge fellowship early to join the firm full time. “The way I looked at it was, ‘You have nothing to lose. You’re helping a young person. Why not open your firm to it?’” Lehtola says. “I just felt that it’s a wonderful thing the Law School does for these kids. We’re just really pleased with the outcome, and we’re glad we did it.”

Winter 2012
Duke Law Magazine (PDF)