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It is said that new lawyers only face two challenges when opening their own practices: not knowing how to practice law and not knowing how to manage a practice.
Other than that, the rest is easy.
In recent years, a number of “incubator” programs have sprung up to provide recent law school graduates with the training and infrastructure to launch solo practices while also encouraging them to offer reasonable rates to modest-means clients to address the access to justice crisis.
The first incubator was established at the City University of New York School of Law in 2007. Ten years later, there are more than 60 incubators in 30 states, according to the American Bar Association’s online directory, as well as programs in Canada, the Dominican Republic, India and Pakistan.
Incubators, which may be created by law schools, state bars, local bar associations, nonprofit organizations, or a combination of these, are becoming so popular that it seems a new one appears every month. These programs address the obstacles that commonly affect new solo practitioners, including the following:
1. Reducing overhead. Covering the costs of running a practice can be particularly challenging in the early stages, as the solo practitioner struggles to build up a robust client base. A number of incubators offer their participants steeply discounted shared office space. At a minimum, they may provide guidance on virtual practice, which could minimize or eliminate the need to pay for physical office space. Incubators can also provide access to cost-saving resources, such as discounted malpractice insurance and discounted or even free software for office management, document management and legal research.
2. Law practice management nuts and bolts. Incubators can help with fundamental steps that may be overwhelming to new lawyers who lack prior business experience, such as selecting an entity type and filing necessary incorporation documents; pursuing a small business loan to help grow the practice; and drafting effective and ethically sound retainer agreements. They may also provide tips on how to market one’s practice online or through more traditional means.
3. Mentoring. One advantage of joining an existing firm is the presence of more experienced lawyers who can provide advice on everything from case strategy to the technicalities of filling out court forms. Incubators address this deficit by giving new solo practitioners access to seasoned attorneys or retired judges who can counsel them on their cases and help them avoid ethical or practical pitfalls. Incubators may also provide training in substantive areas of law, as well as general procedures for conducting court appearances, hearings or depositions. And while incubator participants are not typically part of one big firm, they often provide advice to each other regarding their respective areas of (relative) expertise.
4. Access to clients. The chief complaint about many incubators is that without help getting clients, the benefits of learning lawyering and business skills are limited. Incubators will generally require applicants to submit business plans, which force them to think about what their niche will be, how they will market their firms, and how they will make ends meet until their practice ramps up. But some incubators go further. For example, the Lawyer Entrepreneur Assistance Program (LEAP), operated by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County (LASOC) in partnership with law schools, provides incubator participants with access to LASOC’s lawyer referral service, so that modest-means clients who do not qualify for free legal aid can be connected with lawyers willing to represent them at reasonable rates. Incubators can also teach practitioners about limited scope representation or other alternative structures, so as to expand their geographic or pricing reach. And incubator participants can serve as referral sources when they come across cases that fall into another participant’s area of practice.
The next wave of innovation in the incubator movement will involve technology. My own institution, Concord Law School, recently joined the Legal Aid Society of Orange County’s LEAP program, becoming the first fully online law school to participate in a legal incubator. We will use technology to give participants access to training and mentoring sessions previously available only in person to Orange County attorneys. We will also use telephonic or video conferencing to connect lawyers with clients in different locales, so that living in a remote location is no longer an obstacle to getting legal representation or access to paying clients.
This is a natural progression. Technology has already transformed industries such as transportation (Uber and Lyft) and consumer goods (Google Express) to increase customer convenience and expand and optimize markets. The legal industry has been slower to adopt innovations, but the incubator movement is at the forefront of reform. This is good news for new lawyers, who can get a leg up by taking advantage of the wealth of resources now available.
Martin Pritikin is the Dean of Concord Law School at Kaplan University (concordlawschool.edu), the nation’s first fully online law school. An experienced lawyer and educator, he can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @concordlaw.
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