Solo Incubators and Training Firms
According to the ABA’s last published Lawyers Statistical Report, as of 2000 about 70% of private practice lawyers worked in firms of 10 or fewer and about 50% of lawyers were solo practitioners. In California in 2006, 62% of attorneys in private worked in law firms of five or fewer attorneys (Source: The State Bar of California). With job opportunities shrinking, these percentages are likely to grow. More and more recent law school graduates who had never thought of starting a solo practice are beginning to consider it. Few law students, however, leave law school “practice ready.” Few law schools offer training in the practical or business side of running a small or solo practice. Many career offices do not even mention the solo option. In big firms, recent graduates’ gap in practical skills is filled by rigorous post-graduate training in the firm itself. A friend of mine who just started working at a major New York law firm has spent the first few weeks in her job in full-time “virtual” classroom instruction from top law and business professors — along with every other first-year associate in the firm around the world — on everything these associates will need to actually do their jobs: everything from financial statement analysis to tax to mergers and acquisitions. At the end of these weeks of instruction, these associates will receive a “diploma” to signify their completion of the training and “graduation” festivities to celebrate it. For new graduates who want to pursue a career in a small or solo practice, on the other hand — whether immediately after law school or after working for several years in big firm or government jobs (where new lawyers learn substantive law, but not how to run a business) — it is harder to find these kinds of post-graduate training opportunities. There is a new and growing interest in the profession in filling this gap. In 1997, four law schools created the Law School Consortium Project (LSCP) to address this gap — by designing programs to provide training, mentoring, and support to “the large the large number of law school graduates who enter law schools aspiring to work for the public interest, but, upon graduation, find themselves debt-ridden or unable to obtain one of the scarce public service positions.”Within only the past five years, at least twelve law schools have introduced solo and small-practice incubator programs, residence programs, and post-graduate support systems to provide recent law graduates with the practical skills they need to be a successful solo or small-firm practitioner. The ABA is starting a discussion list and document archive for idea-sharing about incubators. An additional goal of almost all of the existing law school incubator and residency programs — and the LSCP that pre-dated them — is increasing access to legal services for low- and moderate-income people and entities. Bar associations like California‘s and Colorado‘s have Modest Means Task Forces to help lawyers create viable practices representing moderate-income clients. The ABA maintains a directory of incubator programs. These programs include:
- The pioneer of the solo incubator model, City University of New York School of Law debuted its program, Incubator for Justice, in 2007. CUNY’s program offers low-cost office space in midtown Manhattan and internal staff support for up to 18 months to a select number of graduates working to launch a small or solo practice. Participants also benefit from a large network of solo-practitioner mentors (in the Community Legal Resource Network, established in 1998) and internal peer support — both of which reduce the isolation many solo practitioners experience — as well as training in basic business issues like billing, record-keeping, technology, bookkeeping, and taxes, and subject-based training in such areas as immigration law and labor law. In exchange, Incubator participants must commit to 12 hours per month of “low bono” (sliding-scale fee) work – i.e., providing legal services at $75/hr to New York’s underserved communities, paid for by contracts with New York City.
- A little bit different from the incubator model, which supports new attorneys in setting up their own practice, Pace University School of Law’s Community Law Practice is a practice in itself that employs 5-7 recent Pace graduates, who are classified as fellows and paid by the law school. Launched in September 2012, the Pace Community Law Practice provides legal representation to low-income clients in immigration, family, and housing law issues through a combination of sliding-scale fee arrangements and grant-funded legal assistance projects. Intended to be analogous to a medical school residency, PCLP provides seminars on running a practice, as well as mentorship and support opportunities. Pace provides legal services remotely with mobile clinics and bringing consultation services to local community-based organizations.
- In October 2013, Benjamin Cardozo School of Law launched the new Resident Associate Mentoring Program (RAMP), which will offer recent Cardozo graduates an opportunity for a full-time associate position at small and medium-sized firms and corporate legal departments for one year. Participating employers will offer a salary similar to a fellowship and will make a commitment to train and mentor the Resident Associate for one year. In addition, the law school will provide professional development opportunities and CLE training for the new lawyers and their employers. Resident Associates will meet at the law firm about 1x/month to discuss their experiences and learn from each other.
- Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center on Long Island unveiled its Long Island Community Justice Center (LICJC) on November 12, 2013. Fred Rooney, the original creator of the CUNY incubator, and recently dubbed “Father of Incubators” by the ABA, developed the Center, which provides office space, practical training, and mentorship to 10 recent Touro Law graduates, to help them learn to launch their own practices serving clients of modest means. See more here.
- Also in 2013, the New York City Bar Association unveiled its own pilot program placing new lawyers in apprenticeships in big firms or startup law firms.
Other New York law school incubator programs include the Access to Justice Incubator at Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law, which will be operational in spring 2014.
- Modeled after CUNY’s Incubator for Justice, California Western School of Law’s Access to Law Initiative launched in June 2012 to support alumni wishing to serve low- and middle-income clients by opening a solo or small firm practice or non-profit entity. Participants enjoy shared office space in downtown San Diego for up to 18 months and mentoring, networking, and training opportunities. They also commit to provide at least 100 hours per year of pro bono or “low bono” legal service. Two participants describe the Initiative in this video. The Access to Law Initiative builds on CWSL’s 2L STEPPS course, which emphasizes professional responsibility and reflective practice, and its 3L clinical internship program.
- Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s Center for Solo Practitioners lasts 12-18 months and offers affordable shared office space, mentoring from university faculty, and assistance (e.g., targeting markets, setting up fee structures) from MBA students from San Diego State University. Practicing attorneys may be invited to lecture on such topics as marketing and partnership-building. The program has been operational since November 2012.
- The Modest Means/Incubator Task Force of the California Bar Association’s California Commission on Access to Justice announced in October 2013 a statewide support effort and seed grants for post-graduate incubators and related projects for new attorneys, to expand access to justice for modest means families. These initiatives are planned for 2014. For more information, contact Theresa Mesa, Program Developer, State Bar of California Office of Legal Services, firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 538-2143.
- Monterey College of Law just launched its New Solo Practitioner Incubator. The program provides subsidized office space, mentoring, opportunities to shadow lawyers, free or subsidized CLEs and malpractice insurance, training in practice management and client development, networking, case referrals, and legal research resources. Subject matter is limited to restraining orders, collections, small claims, unlawful detainer and guardianship. Fees are on a sliding scale and determined by household income.
- Whittier Law School‘s Solo and Small Practice Support Program opened in November 2012 to help alumni build successful solo and small firm practices. Participants receive mentoring on substantive legal issues, opportunities to shadow lawyers, free or subsidized CLE training and malpractice insurance, case referrals, programming on client development, monthly business speakers and peer advisory meetings, professional headshots, business cards, and web hosting. Whittier’s Legal Access Program opened in January 2015 under the auspices of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, in association with the latter organization’s Lawyer Entrepreneur Assistance Program. The Legal Access Program provides new solo practitioners with many of the supports that the Solo and Small Practice Support Program provides. It also requires that participants take some pro bono cases and cases for modest-means clients.
- Northern California Lawyer Access, a traditional lawyer referral service covering 20 rural counties in Northern California, is launching its Law Practice Academy incubator to train new lawyers to serve California’s most remote (and poorest) rural areas. The Academy is headquartered in Nevada and its attorneys will use cloud-based software so they can consult with and represent clients from anywhere. The Academy will try to get clients access to public computers in libraries, courthouses, and social service agencies.
- Rutgers School of Law – Newark launched its Associates Fellowship Program in February 2014.
- On July 31, 2014, University of Massachusetts School of Law at Dartmouth launched its Justice Bridge incubator in Boston. Newly admitted attorneys in the incubator with access to experienced mentors provide legal representation to clients for fees on a sliding scale, starting at $50/hour — and Justice Bridge attorneys further stretch clients’ money by doing limited assistance representation wherever possible. Most clients earn 250-300% of the federal poverty line (approximately $65,000-$70,000 for a family of four). (Justice Bridge’s New Bedford location serves clients earning 200-225% of the federal poverty line, or about $48,500 for a family of four.) Practice areas of special concentration include family law, housing, probate, employment, consumer law, immigration, education, and small business. The incubator will not take criminal cases. Attorneys in the incubator pay membership fees of $500/month, in exchange for office space, referrals, and access to six mentors on site and two dozen more on call. Originally launched as an incubator law firm at Northeastern University School of Law in April 2014, the brainchild of Deborah A. Ramirez, professor at Northeastern School of Law, Justice Bridge is now funded by private donations secured by the UMass School of Law and staffed primarily by its graduates. Two slots are reserved for Northeastern grads. Mary Lu Bilek, the dean of the UMass Dartmouth Law School, helped launch the nation’s first legal incubator hen she was dean at CUNY Law School.
- Widener Law in Harrisburg and the Dauphin County Bar Association are working together to launch in incubator in 2015 for new solo attorneys who graduated from Widener. Participants will receive computers, equipment, training, and mentors and will be required to complete 100 hours of pro bono services.
- The Vermont Bar Association and Vermont Law School are partnering on a Lawyer Incubator Pilot Project to encourage new lawyers to set up solo or small-firm practices serving underserved populations and geographic areas of Vermont. The Pilot will run 18 months in 2014-2015, for 2-3 new lawyers supervised by VBA and VLS staff and volunteer mentor attorneys.
- Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services is an “environmental justice incubator,” founded in January 2014 in Pittsburgh and operating as a private nonprofit law firm. It provides a residency program for new lawyers aspiring to open their own environmental law practices and environmental legal services for modest-means clients. Another Fair Shake office has opened in Akron, Ohio.
- Lawyers for Affordable Justice is a collaboration between Northeastern University School of Law, Boston College School of Law, and Boston University School of Law. It was awarded one of three American Bar Association 2015 Catalyst Grants. Twelve graduates from the three law schools will participate in the incubator for two years, practicing in business, employment, landlord-tenant, and immigration law.
- The Maine Community Law Center opened in Portland, Maine, in the fall of 2015, with two lawyers serving low-income clients on a sliding-fee scale. The Center also plans to serve as an “incubator” for new lawyers: it plans to hire two lawyers per year for two-year terms, providing them with weekly meetings on the business of law to prepare them to go out on their own at the end of their terms. The Center is a nonprofit founded by a former state assistant attorney general who also previously worked in private practice.
- Suffolk University Law School’s Accelerator to Practice Program trains law students to create sustainable law practices upon graduation. Participants learn to build practices that serve modest-means clients by through internships with law firms and coursework on the use of legal technology, law practice management, and alternative methods for delivering legal services.
- University of Maryland Francis King Cary School of Law’s solo incubator program, which lasts 6-10 months, launched in January 2011. Participants work in an office across the street from the law school and help with grant-funded cases through Civil Justice, Inc., a nonprofit law office that serves low-income clients.
- Since the fall of 2011, Florida International University College of Law‘s post-graduate LawBridge Legal Residency Program provides new lawyers with an apprenticeship “with elements akin to both a medical school residency and a business school entrepreneurial incubator.” Participants enroll for two years, set up solo practices housed in FIU LawBridge facilities, receive guidance from the College of Law, and engage in extensive pro bono services. They are coached in meeting with clients, establishing attorney-client relationships, timekeeping and billing, managing workloads, marketing and public relations, accounting and financial planning, and ethics and professionalism.
- Loyola University New Orleans College of Law announced in the fall of 2014 the Loyola Incubator Program to train new (or aspiring) solo practice lawyers with the practical skills to serve modest-means individuals in work focusing on social justice. The 12-month program provides five lawyers in the first three years of solo practice with mentorship, peer feedback, resources, instructions, case referrals, and training in law office management. The program participants will provide a significant amount of pro bono legal services. The program recently on a grant from the American Bar Association.
- On April 13, 2015, Georgetown University Law Center, DLA Piper, and Arent Fox announced their plan to open up a nonprofit law firm to serve low-income clients in civil matters. The DC Affordable Law Firm is scheduled to open its doors in October 2015. The law school will provide six Georgetown graduates with 15-month fellowships, DLA Piper and Arent Fox will provide them with mentors, and Arent Fox will provide them with free office space.
- In September 2013, private attorneys Barbara Picard joined with Eppa Hunton VI created the Richmond Legal Development Center to serve as an incubator for young attorneys, providing a collaborative environment, mentoring, and training.
- Legal services nonprofit Louisiana Civil Justice Center launched its Legal Innovators for Tomorrow (LIFT) Fellowship Program in February 2014. To help them build small and solo practices serving low-income clients, fellows receive mentorship, CLEs, practice management training, networking and referrals.
- In September 2014, the Georgia Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism awarded a seed grant of $15,000 to the Administrative Office of the Courts to create an incubator program for Georgia. Tentatively called Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ), Georgia’s incubator will trains and support 30 recent law school graduates who want to start solo or small firms committed to serving communities in need. This program is a project of the State Bar of Georgia, in collaboration with the five ABA-approved law schools in Georgia. Participants “graduate” from the program after 18 months. In July 2015, the State Bar of Georgia Board of Governors approved funding of $85,000 for the incubator. Each of a consortium of law schools (including the University of Georgia) will also contribute $25,000.
- Mississippi College School of Law‘s Incubator Residency Program will become operational in the fall of 2015. The program will operate under the Law School and the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission. The program is designed to run 18 months.
Other law school incubator programs in the southeast include the ESQ. Build – Sole Practitioner Incubator, which was launched in October 2013 by The University of Memphis, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
- Beginning in 2012 with seven alums, Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law‘s new Solo and Small Practice Incubator offers free office space and access to research materials, technology, and mentors. Each alum participating in the program must contribute 10 hours per week to the school’s law clinic.
- In 2013, the Chicago Bar Foundation launched its Justice Entrepreneurs Project, a privately supported incubator designed to match underemployed young law graduates with “modest means” clients. The program lasts 18 months. Participating lawyers spend the first six months working through local legal aid organizations to provide free services while developing their own paying clientele. They get stipends of about $1,000 a month from local law schools and, after six months, will pay nominal rent for incubator space. The incubator is funded by law firms, other businesses, and unclaimed awards from class action settlements. A short video about the program is available here.
- Since 2004, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law’s Solo and Small Firm Institute has offered a summer course and a series of fall and spring semester workshops — by law and business school faculty, practicing attorneys, and other professionals — on business planning and other topics related to founding and operating a small law firm. In fall of 2011, UKMC built on this pre-graduation training by introducing its UMKC Solo and Small Law Firm Incubator project. The incubator provides practice management assistance, mentoring (including by a rotating set of judges), and affordable office space in two store-front offices close to campus and abutting a low-income neighborhood. Participants commit to provide a certain number of hours of pro bono and low bono legal services.
- Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law officially opened its Cleveland-Marshall Solo Practice Incubator on February 4, 2014. Recent Cleveland-Marshall graduates will each open a practice in a practice area of their choosing, housed in office space that was previously part of the law school’s library. The incubator will have a designated coordinator to provide guidance and troubleshoting, and the school’s Solo Practice Advisory Council will host frequent presentations and workshops by local lawyers, service providers and others.
- In April 2011, the Columbus Bar Association launched Columbus Bar inc (“inc” is short for incubator), which provides office space and equipment, practice management training, mentors, networking, and referrals to help new lawyers build successful practices.
- Wayne State University Law School in Detroit opened the Wayne Alumni Law Group in December 2014 to give Wayne Law graduates the business and legal expertise to run law practices devoted to providing business services to Detroit’s under-resourced entrepreneurs. The program is free-standing and participants are considered to be part of single law firm. Legal services are provided at $75-$125 per hour or on a flat fee basis. The program is staffed by two full-time employees and law school contract staff and volunteers. There is an opportunity but no obligation to do pro bono work. The program lasts 18 months and participants receive free office space, a stipend, mentoring with substantive law and practice management, CLEs, malpractice insurance, networking, and case referrals.
- The Akron Bar Association Incubator Program will become operational in September 2015. Participants will receive mentoring, subsidized office space, case referrals, and legal research resources.
- Collaborative Community Law Initiative is a joint project of Hamline University School of Law and William Mitchell College of Law, both located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It will be Minnesota’s first legal incubator. It is not operational yet, but stay tuned . . . .
- University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law launched the University Law Group (ULG) in February 2012. Serving a moderate-means client base, the ULG provides relatively simple, short-term legal services and offers flat-rate fee arrangements or hourly rates of $50 to $80 per hour, depending on client income. The ULG currently has a handful of attorneys, but the university expects to have as many as 15 attorneys by the end of the year.
- Seattle University School of Law selected four graduates to participate in its Low Bono Incubator Program, a post-graduation mentoring, legal education, and business support program for new attorneys serving moderate means clients. It includes a stipend to cover initial business expenses and launched in January 2014.
- Bill Becker, an alumnus of the University of Puget Sound School of Law, is building support to launch a private legal incubator, the Legal Services Exchange, based on the business incubator model for startup companies. The Legal Service Exchange has five goals: 1) teach the practical aspects of practicing law; 2) provide the infrastructure for new solos; 3) serve middle-class and small-business clients; 4) provide business-management support to the individual solos; and 5) teach the new attorneys how to maximize their value to the client.
- The dean of Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law envisioned a large-scale nonprofit law firm that broadens access to justice by charging below-market rates and trains new law school graduates along a model inspired by the Mayo Clinic’s medical residency system. Like a traditional law firm, the ASU Alumni Law Group would have 5-6 experienced attorneys to act as partners and supervise 15-30 “resident lawyers,” recent ASU grads. The residents would spend up to two years cycling through different practice areas, such as bankruptcy, family law, and corporate organization, and — unlike in most large law firms — would gain experience with the economics of practice, such as billing, accounting, and marketing. The ASU Alumni Law Group is set to become operational in May 2014.
- The Family Justice Center’s Legal Incubator Project (located in Richmond, California, and Concord, California) trains new or transitioning attorneys to start their own solo, small firm, or nonprofit practice serving victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, elder abuse, and human trafficking. The project’s eight participants provide 18 months of pro bono services in exchange for training and help incubating their practice. Areas of practice include family, immigration, consumer, housing, and probate law. The Center provides office space, furniture, meeting rooms, reception assistance, computers and printers, office supplies, practice management software, internet, telephone, utilities—and training and mentors.
- The University of Hawai’i at Mãnoa new legal incubator—launched in January 2016 in partnership with the Legal Aid Society and Volunteer Legal Services Hawai’i and tentatively named Hawai’i Emerging Legal Practitioners (HELP)—provides stipends, training, and mentoring to recent graduates and others who want to build solo practices serving limited-means clients. The program began this year with six participants.
A predecessor model for Arizona’s planned teaching law firm model is the Chicago-Kent School of Law’s In-House Clinical Education Program, a fee-generating teaching firm that provides clinical practice experience under the supervision of teaching attorney.