Like father, like son at local law firm

Young man forgoes law school for legal apprenticeship with Dad

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Bennett Brandenburg is learning the family business.

Every week day, Bennett heads to his father's downtown Vancouver office. He fields phone calls, consults criminal defendants and plaintiffs in personal injury cases, shuttles papers to the courthouse and helps manage the law firm's calendar.

The routine comes pretty naturally. "I've been conditioned for this job my whole life," Bennett joked, as he sat in his dad's upstairs office on a recent morning.

This isn't just an apprenticeship.

This is 22-year-old Bennett's law education.

And his father isn't just his boss. He's his professor.

Bennett is part of a state bar program that allows students to forgo law school in exchange for learning under an experienced attorney. He's among 62 students enrolled in Washington's law clerk program, compared with the 1,680 students currently attending the state's three law schools.

Bennett was cleared last month to begin the program, which will last four years. It includes periodic tests — administered by Dad — and an annual $1,500 fee to the state bar association. The end result, after passing the bar exam, is a license to practice law.

The state's 28-year-old program — one of only four in the United States — has had mixed success. Fewer than 20 percent of participants have actually completed the program over the past five years. But of those who finished, an average of 85 percent have passed the bar exam, according to figures from bar association spokeswoman Debra Carnes.

Diligence and self-motivation are crucial to success to the program, said the elder Brandenburg, who's been an attorney for 20 years. He said his son has always excelled on his own, so he has confidence.

"This is a great fit for him to exercise independence," Barry said.

'Protecting the little guy'

Bennett said he didn't always want to be an attorney, though family members frequently encouraged it. He graduated with a 3.89 GPA this spring from George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., with a degree in psychology. Up until a year ago, he wanted to be a mental health counselor.

A year ago, though, he accompanied his dad to a jailhouse interview of two 20-year-old defendants. One of them told Barry she was considering getting back into prostitution to help pay her bills.

The encounter made an impression on Bennett about the importance of being a criminal defense attorney in "helping people change their lives," he said.

"My parents were always about protecting the little guy who's been picked on by the bully," he said. "I really have a heart for that, too."

Bennett likes the alternative of the law clerk program, admitting the idea of law school was daunting. But this way, he says he can learn to be an attorney by practicing hands-on. Bennett cannot actually try cases in court until he's completed certain levels of coursework, which usually happens after two years.

"The No. 1 benefit of this program is the hands-on experience of learning the law while practicing the law," Barry said.

Barry, whose firm handles criminal defense and personal injury cases, said he plans to consult attorney friends who specialize in other areas of law as he teaches his son. Bennett will study coursework traditional to law school, such as real estate law and tort law, and will buy his books online. He plans to work an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, and study at night.

How has working for his dad changed their relationship?

Bennett said as an only child, he's always been close to his parents and spends time with his dad golfing and fishing. "This is just another step in the father-son relationship," he said.

Barry said the goal is for Bennett to take over the law firm when he retires in 10 to 15 years. Bennett said so far, he wants to practice the same areas of law as his dad, but that may change as he studies other practices.

Whatever area of law, Barry said having his son carry on the firm would make for a great legacy.

"In theory, what a wonderful transition," Barry said. "I feel a huge responsibility. I'm looking at this as likely the most significant thing to ever happen in my practice."

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts;www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker;laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.