Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Law school incubators help launch solos

This is from today's National Law Journal. See our previous blog post about legal incubators here.

[CUNY''s incubator project] offers low-cost office space in midtown Manhattan and staff support for up to two years to a select number of graduates aiming to establish themselves as solos or launch small firms. The program offers more than office space; participants have access to a large network of experienced solo practitioners who function as mentors, and they enjoy an internal support network among their colleagues in the incubator, which helps to reduce the isolation many solo practitioners experience.

"The setup lends itself to a ton of collaboration," [one graduate] said. "There are a lot of attorneys in the office with different levels of experience in different areas. We help each other. I have other attorneys read everything that goes out of the office."

CUNY's program was the first of its kind when it debuted in 2007, but now law schools around the country have launched solo incubators, and more are on the way. The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law unveiled its solo and small-firm incubator last fall, and the University of Maryland School of Law introduced its incubator in January.

. . . .

"Law schools all around the country are very interested in providing these services to their graduates," [Fred Rooney, the director of CUNY's solo-focused Community Legal Resource Network] said. "At a time when job opportunities are dismal, incubators offer a chance to create jobs for new lawyers."

CUNY has been providing technical support to other law schools in the form of handbooks, contracts and other startup documents. Establishing a successful solo incubator requires a significant investment in staff and resources, Rooney said.

Student interest may prove a challenge as well, said Carolyn Elefant, a solo practitioner in Washington who writes the solo-focused blog, Myshingle.com. Law schools are beginning to offer more resources for graduates who wish to start their own firms, but students aren't always keen to participate, she said. Elefant rarely sees a large turnout for the talks she gives at law schools about going solo.

"While I applaud these programs, I also have to be honest that in my own experience, I have not seen a huge student demand or interest in solo and small-firm practice," she said. "While it's true that many career offices do not even mention the solo option, that is changing — and yet, in my own experience, I've seen little interest by students."

Herrera noted that most of the schools actively pursuing incubators are not the most prestigious ones, as defined by the U.S. News & World Report's law schools ranking, partly because students at those schools have better chances of landing law firm jobs. "Organizations like Harvard don't even want to bother putting their resources into something like this," she said.

The few solo incubators that are up and running employ slightly different models. Several have a clear civil justice emphasis, while others are more business-oriented. They vary in length from six months to as long as two years.

At CUNY, incubator participants do a significant amount of what Rooney calls "low bono" work. They earn $75 an hour for providing legal representation to underserved communities throughout New York, paid for by contracts with New York City. The work provides the new attorneys with experience and exposure, and provides representation to people who otherwise could not afford an attorney, Rooney said. Incubator attorneys take on their own cases in addition to the contract work.

The University of Maryland's solo incubator, which lasts between six and 10 months, also promotes civil justice. Participants work in an office across the street from the law school and assist on grant-funded cases through Civil Justice Inc., a nonprofit law office that serves low-income clients. The seven graduates who started in the program in 2011 had the chance to earn fees while working on foreclosure prevention cases, Morris said.

. . . .

"Our goal is to provide a vehicle for students who are considering going solo or into small-firm practice," Morris said. "There are certain skills you need to be a successful solo practitioner. We want to teach them the practical skills they don't necessarily get in the classroom."

The University of Missouri-Kansas City's solo incubator runs out of two adjacent storefront offices on the edge of campus, abutting a low-income neighborhood. It has room for eight attorneys, but is starting slowly, with five tenants. When the program is fully ramped up, the school will have retired judges rotate through the office to serve as mentors to its participants, said Dean Ellen Suni. The incubator is an outgrowth of the school's entrepreneurial lawyering course, in which students develop business plans and attend the state bar's annual solo and small-firm conference.

Stephanie Burton, who graduated from the law school in December, never planned on going solo. But the former parole officer and mother of four found no luck in the job market.

"I had two choices," she said. "I could sit in my house and cry about it. Or I could pull myself up by my bootstraps and start my own practice. I was terrified about starting a firm, but it was necessary in order to make a living."

Burton was accepted into the law school's solo incubator. She dusted off the 30-page business plan she had written for the entrepreneurial lawyering course, only to have her two assigned mentors rip it to shreds as unrealistic. She adjusted her expectations and business plan, developed a marketing strategy and now handles mostly traffic and other municipal violations, although she hopes to take on criminal cases.

Her practice isn't particularly lucrative yet, Burton said, but she hopes that will change as she establishes herself.

You can read the rest here.

Hat tip to Joe Harbaugh.



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