“Incubators are where the action is.”
So says Ellen Suni, dean of the law school at University of Missouri Kansas City, at “Enhancing Social Justice Through the Development of Incubators and Residency Programs,” an international conference hosted by California Western.
The conference drew more than 160 attendees, examining in-depth the role incubator programs play in combining post-graduate legal education and providing legal services to the public. Participants examined the successes and challenges these programs bring.
Incubators are designed to be launching pads for law school graduates to learn the ropes of solo- or small-firm practice—with all of the lawyers in one office—managing independent solo practices.
Bob Seibel, director of California Western’s incubator program—the Access to Law Initiative (ALI)—was the organizer of the conference that he believes “will be considered a landmark in the development of these post-graduate incubator programs as part of the access to justice movement.”
One of the key issues the conference addressed was the “justice gap” in the United States. One study shows that an estimated 80 percent of Americans need a lawyer, but don’t have access to one for financial or other reasons.
Incubators like ALI are trying to close the justice gap by providing pro bono (free), or “low bono” (affordable) legal services to clients from underserved communities.
The lawyers with the ALI program are required to provide 100 hours of pro bono and public service work per year—which adds up to more than 1800 hours annually.
“A good way to measure the success of an incubator program is its impact on access to justice,” said Niels B. Schaumann, president and dean of California Western during the dean’s panel. “Also, it’s important for our students to know that we don’t just offer a three-year program.
"Through programs like this, we are there for them even after graduation.”
At a panel of lawyers who are part of incubator programs, all three agreed that starting a solo practice is like starting a business.
“Learning the law and practicing the law are two different things,” said Edwin N. Schwartz ’13 of California Western’s ALI program.
Schwartz said he is the lawyer, receptionist, secretary, owner, chief financial officer, bookkeeper, marketer, paralegal, and the associate in his solo firm.
“I wear all of these hats—but this is what I signed up for,” Schwartz said. “You have to have the mindset of starting a business.”
Technology was identified on several panels as an important tool for newer lawyers to use to enable them to provide personal and quality service to larger numbers of clients. Several sessions addressed ways to use and teach about technology in law school and in incubator programs.
One major benefit of the incubator programs is the collegiality and collaboration that develops from the lawyers being in the same office—where they not only receive legal support from each other, but moral support as well.
The first law school incubator program was launched in 2007 by Fred Rooney at City University of New York, who helped to launch California Western’s incubator in 2012, the first of its kind on the West Coast.
A late night phone call to ALI from “a tearful client” who had never been able to get a lawyer to listen to his story convinced Seibel that the incubator program is indeed benefitting both the clients and the attorneys.
“It brings you a profound level of career satisfaction,” said Seibel of the experience, adding that the client had found an ALI lawyer to take his case.
One other somewhat playful issue that came up at the conference is what to call the lawyers who are in incubator programs. The term “incubatees” came up several times.
“Every time someone calls me an incubatee, I feel like an egg,” said Maurice Williams, a lawyer with the Touro Law Center’s incubator program in New York.
The conference was sponsored by California Western School of Law, Touro Law Center, University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law, The American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, and the State Bar of California Access to Justice Commission.