[Editor’s note: The IFLP archives include several student profiles that document the impact of the program on students’ lives. With the students’ permission, the IFLP leadership team wanted to share these with a broader audience. Regarding Elmer Thoreson, after three weeks at the IFLP Boot Camp at Northwestern Law in the spring of 2018, he went on to a 7-month field placement at Chapman and Cutler as part of their Practice Innovations team. The cutting-edge skills acquired at Chapman resulted in Elmer getting his dream job at goodcounsel. wdh.]
As the son of a construction worker and a stay-at-home mother growing up in Valparaiso, Indiana, Elmer Thoreson was keenly aware of class and income inequality from an early age.
“The city was very stratified between lower and higher-income residents,” he said.
Despite being a good student, he didn’t have access to an accelerated academic program until the fifth grade.
“That was my first experience with class consciousness,” he said.
During middle school, Elmer’s mother passed away. By the time he was in high school, his father had remarried, which put a strain on their relationship. After Elmer’s high school graduation, he worked two jobs and attended community college, but he found it overwhelming and did not return to community college following the first semester.
Turning 24 was a game-changer for Elmer because the federal financial aid programs no longer presumed parental support (an incorrect assumption in Elmer’s case). With access to financial aid, Elmer completed an associate’s degree and began working as a paralegal.
“One day, one of the attorneys asked me why I was a paralegal when I could be doing so much more,” Elmer said.
From paralegal to full-ride scholarship to IU Law
Inspired by the attorney’s confidence in his abilities, Elmer returned to school in his early 30s and graduated summa cum laude from IU Northwest with a bachelor’s degree in environmental and public affairs. He applied to Indiana University Maurer School of Law, which offered him a full-ride scholarship. Once again, he found the environment stratified.
“I didn’t get a big law internship offer for my 2L summer despite several interviews,” said Elmer. “I looked around at my peers who did have offers, and the common factor was they had attorneys in their family or network. As a first-generation college graduate, I didn’t have those connections,” he said.
For the summer between his 2L and 3L years, Elmer was accepted into the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP) 3-week boot camp and Internship Program in Chicago and the IFLP 2-week Advanced Boot Camp in Boulder.
“I thought, if I can’t get in the front door, maybe I’ll get in through the side door by developing this skill set,” he said.
During one of the boot camp sessions, Elmer said an IFLP instructor asked ‘Who is a first-generation attorney?’ and everyone raised their hands.
IFLP boot camp: a foot in the door
“I think we applied to IFLP because the traditional paths and networking weren’t available to us,” he said. “We were looking for ways to make ourselves more marketable.”
He found both the IFLP curriculum and networking extremely valuable.
“There was a lot of great knowledge to be gained, all taught by experts,” he said. “The content was very practical and directed toward accelerating our growth in the profession. I loved meeting people from other law schools at the boot camps and seeing their perspectives and different approaches. IFLP gave me my ‘networking training wheels.’”
Elmer followed up the boot camps with an IFLP-sponsored 7-month internship at Chapman and Cutler in Chicago, where he worked in a group doing document automation and process improvement.
“Chapman and Cutler is a very tech-forward and innovative firm,” he said. “I learned how to program document automation and took online coding classes while I was there.”
“It was great to meet people in the innovation community,” he added. “I walked away with way more people in my Twitter and LinkedIn than I had before.”
During his last year of law school, Elmer applied for a part-time position at goodcounsel, a startup law firm in Chicago.
Internship offers legal operations skill set
“goodcounsel was looking for an attorney with business and document automation skills, which isn’t easy to find,” he said. “They saw that not only did I know how to code in Contract Express but also that I was willing to learn outside of traditional law. And that was attractive.”
Someday, Elmer said he’d liked to teach law students or paralegal students at community college about document automation tools.
“I’d like to help students like me,” he said. “Law is very selective and I was an outsider. That’s why I think law has such a problem with diversity and inclusion. Firms talk about finding a candidate that’s the right ‘fit,’ but they have no idea what would make a good employee. What they are really looking for—and this could be completely subconscious—is someone who is as similar to them as possible.”
He said that he hopes that additional credentials like those he gained through IFLP will be valuable enough that the definition of what’s a good ‘fit’ will change for legal employers.
“Law firms say they want modern skills, but they don’t change their hiring model,” he said. “That needs to change.”
“Most faces in the average law school class are white, young, and from higher social classes,” he said. “There’s a minority of minorities, including ethnicities, women, and older students.”