“Legal Incubators” Are a Good Response to the Need to Provide Legal Services to People of Modest Means

Law schools in California and other states have started up incubator programs. [Note: see this LBN report on such a program at Arizona State University.] These projects, sort of training law firms, aim to help students prepare for life as lawyers by teaching them about the basics of law practice. At the same time, these programs provide affordable access to legal services for people of modest means. There are now about two dozen of these start-up firms across the country. Next year, five law schools in the San Francisco Bay Area will launch their program. Its objectives will be to provide long-term employment for graduates and increase access to legal services. Tiela Chalmers, CEO of the Alameda County Bar Association, discusses the initiative in this report.

Tiela Chalmers

Tiela Chalmers

Chalmers says that one of the qualities the program will look for in law school candidates for the program is an entrepreneurial approach to life and a desire to start a solo practice. The Bay Area program will look for people who also have an interest in working on social issues or helping the community. Candidates must also have passed the bar exam.

Funding for programs like these may come from many sources. In the case of the Bay Area program, the funding comes from law schools. The amount from each school will depend on how many students they end up sending to the program. In addition, Chalmers explains, the program got a grant from the State Bar of California. The program will continue to look for additional funding sources.

The program is a full-time venture. The lawyers who work there will not be employees of the program. They will be setting up their own solo practices. The program is a two-year arrangement. During the first six months, the new lawyer will spend twenty hours each week in pro bono working with a legal aid organization and, ideally, working in areas of interest for them. For example, lawyers interested in family law might work for an organization that handles domestic violence matters and issues of divorce and child support. The other part of their time will be spent in an extensive curriculum program that will cover substantive law topics, but also law practice management, practice skills, and marketing—things a new lawyer needs to know in order to develop a solo practice. They'll also meet with mentors in their areas of interest in the law.

After the six-month period, the new lawyers will start taking low fee cases. They will be supervised, Chalmers says, by a supervising lawyer who is an employee of the program. The goal of the program is to produce lawyers who, after they leave the program, will continue to spend half their time dealing with the legal problems of people of modest means.

As to the criticism that these programs only work with a select group of people, Chalmers says there is some truth to that, in that the program will start out with only fifteen new lawyers each year. The program is not something that would interest every law school graduate, and not every one of them would have the interest or the desire for this kind of practice. Of course, if there is a larger group of new graduates who have the interest and the skills, the program can expand. As to the criticism that law schools use programs like this to inflate their after-graduation employment statistics, the claim doesn’t hold water. Considering the relatively large size of graduating classes and the small number of participants, a program like this has no noticeable effect on employment statistics. The program does good for the community, so if there is a small impetus for schools, there’s probably no real issue.

Tiela Chalmers is the Chief Executive Officer of the Alameda County Bar Association. Prior to joining the ACBA, she worked as a Nonprofit Consultant consulting on a number of projects, including coordinating the Shriver Housing Project in Los Angeles, the largest of the “Civil Gideon” pilot projects in California, working with the ABA and a national working group on updating the Pro Bono Standards, and working with several legal services non-profits to expand their pro bono programs and to strategically plan for the future. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.