By Amy Phan Taylor.
Not long ago, setting up a solo law practice involved a large degree of baptism by fire. New solo attorneys had to brave a career fraught with uncertainty as necessary skills required for that li ne of work—such as setting up the required paperwork, collecting fees, advertising, and finding clients—went largely untaught by law schools. “It was a lonely road to solo practice,” said Alizabeth Newman, director of City University of New York Law School’s Community Legal Resource Network, which initiated the nation’s first incubator program in 2007. “Solo work is hard to do without cutting your teeth elsewhere. There’s a huge risk associated with overhead [costs].”
But the journey to solo work became less daunting for law students about a decade ago, when law schools like CUNY began investing in post-graduate training programs catered toward helping those looking to get into solo practice. Called incubators, these programs reduce the financial uncertainty graduates face with heavily subsidized or free space, a steady source of income, classes on the nuts and bolts of running a solo practice—from getting clients to advertising to fee structures—mentors in the field, and more. In return, participants pledge to serve low- to middle-income clients who can’t afford the full costs of legal services. Compensation for participants varies greatly depending on the programs’ parent institution, but participants receive a cut of the hourly rate programs charge, which typically ranges from $75 to $125 per hour.
SOLO BY DESIGN, NOT DEFAULT There are currently roughly 50 incubator programs across the country providing similar offerings, according to the ABA. They are run mostly by law schools, with a few managed by local bar associations, nonprofits, or privately funded organizations.
Some of the more common features of these programs include shared office space at a reduced cost and ongoing professional training for a period of time. Most programs “incubate” participants anywhere from one to three years before sending them off in the real world. The programs are designed to serve low- to mid-level income clients, who can’t necessarily afford local going rates for legal services, in areas like consumer law, estate planning, and family law.
When Fred Rooney jump-started the first incubator program in the country at CUNY, he saw it as a way to increase access to justice for the com-munity while also helping graduates get a foot in the door to serving their own communities. “Students should consider solo practice as an option and not as a default,” said Rooney, who’s currently helping set up an incubator program in Islamabad, Pakistan.
With CUNY staff in 2007, Rooney helped a group of nine CUNY law school graduates participate that first year. “I knew that if law schools were to take on the responsibility of continuing to educate their graduates, they’d pro-vide a lifeline for lawyers in transition,” Rooney said.
So far, the program has helped around 40 CUNY graduates, Newman said.
INCUBATORS GROW STRENGTH. According to the most recent data compiled by the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, law schools had about 3,000 fewer graduates in 2014 than 2013, from 43,832 to 46,776. Of this group, only about 2.1 percent, or 936 attorneys, went into solo work in 2014. This number is a slight decrease from solo work in 2013, which accounted for about 2.3 percent of recent grads, or 1,068 attorneys.
Despite the low numbers in the solo practice sector, the continued interest and development of incubator programs nationwide indicates that they’re here to stay, providing recent law school graduates with another way to gain meaningful employment in a sluggish economy.
Since CUNY’s incubator program debut, other law schools, county bar associations, and a few privately funded organizations have followed the model. The latest incubator program is made up of a partnership between five law schools in the San Francisco Bay.
Area: University of California Hastings College of the Law; University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; Golden Gate University School of Law; University of San Francisco School of Law; and Santa Clara University School of Law. It provides up to three participants from each school the opportunity to serve the modest-means community. Known as the Bay Area Legal Incubator, or BALI, the program will let participants rent space inside the Alameda County Law Library beginning in January 2016. BALI is run through the Alameda County Bar Association.
“Students often look at developing a niche in one area of practice, and this program can be used to develop an-other one—the $100 per hour niche— a niche that’s based on a lower fee,” Tiela Chalmers, CEO of the Alameda County Bar Association, said. “You don’t have a lot of competition in that niche.”
But developing such a niche wouldn’t be possible for many graduates without the help of BALI, a two-year program that gradually increases the financial overhead participants undertake. In the first six months, participants get a monthly $500 stipend, followed by no stipend for the next six months. Then they’ll pay $250 to BALI for the next six months, and finally they’ll pay $500 per month for the last six months in the program.
Incubator programs in general reward those with an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to make a difference in disadvantaged or “modest means” communities, Chalmers said. If those things don’t appeal to you, then the incubator model probably isn’t for you, she added. Perhaps the best way to begin a solo or small-firm practice is in an incubator program, Rooney said. He urges law students to encourage their school to start an incubator program, if one isn’t already off the ground. “In many instances, law schools have decided to create incubators because of ground support from students.”
Rooney also encourages students “to develop practice skills before graduation so that they can use the skills to benefit themselves and their communities once they’ve passed the bar and set up their own practice.”
AMY PHAN TAYLOR, a 2L student at Seattle University School of Law, is student editor of Student Lawyer.
VOL. 44, NO. 2