The world’s first incubator was launched in Batavia, N.Y. following the shutdown of the region’s largest employer, Massey-Ferguson, in 1956, leaving vacant an 850,000 square foot building and 20 percent of the community unemployed. After failing to find a sole tenant, the subsequent property owner, Joseph Mancuso, came up with an innovative approach to utilize the space and cultivate a new working force of local entrepreneurs, creating the Batavia Industrial Center. Coining the term “incubator” comparing one of the tenants, a chicken hatchery, to how they were “incubating” the businesses for similar growth, the incubator movement was formed.
Fast forward to 1998 and we welcome to the scene Fred Rooney, godfather to the law school legal incubator, launching the City University of New York School of Law’s (CUNY) Community Legal Resource Network (CLRN). Their mission was to provide professional support to CUNY graduates interested in creating their own practices with a focus on service to underserved populations. The approach was training in both legal skills and professional development. The result was successful, satisfied attorneys, upholding the principals of “liberty and justice for all”.
The legal incubator movement has really gained momentum since the 2008 economic crisis. However, make no mistake, securing a space in these incubators can still be just as competitive and prestigious as some of the top law jobs. There are now more than 100 incubators listed on the ABA’s Incubator/Residency Directory, servicing diverse practice areas, and new programs are popping up all the time. These incubators are run by private entities, law schools, bar associations, and outside organizations and are providing participants with the opportunity to gain skills in both the business of law and their substantive practice areas.
One such example is the recently launched Lawyers for Affordable Justice, a collaboration between the Northeastern University, Boston College and Boston University schools of law. The program supports six practice areas – small business, landlord-tenant, employment, family, criminal and immigration – which were carefully selected after thorough market research into which areas had the most need for access to justice, which is a focus of its mission.
Each of the three schools has a director representative, and there are an additional four legal advisers for the substantive areas of law. Participants are carefully selected from recent graduates of each of the three schools through a rigorous applications process, and once admitted, they undergo a week-long boot camp to team build and launch their endeavors. Each participant creates his or her own law firm, and the incubator provide support in practice management – including the provision of technological tools, complimentary memberships, programming, mentorship, and referrals – and their selected practice area. It is a two-year program that grows with the participants, and it is all housed in a shared fully stocked workspace.
Legal incubators are charged with more than just providing post-graduate positions. Many have missions aligned with the access to justice movement and are inspired by legal innovation. Reimagining the delivery of legal services permits participants to develop practices to meet the access to justice challenge and create fulfilling careers. The future of the legal profession may be uncertain, but the expansion of the incubator option is inspiring.