Preparing to Practice - How Incubators Help Law Students Pave Their Own Way

By Martin Pritikin 

Law graduates have more job options than they have in years. A recent study by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) found that employment outcomes for the Class of 2017 were “surprisingly strong,” driven in part by an increase in law firm hiring.

Nevertheless, law students should seriously considering starting their own practices (or teaming up with a classmate or two) soon after graduation. Going solo is increasingly viewed as an affirmative good, and not just a fallback for those who couldn’t land law firm jobs. But it can be intimidating. Fortunately, there are now more “incubators” than ever that can help.

Before discussing how incubators can help new solo practitioners, it is worth taking a moment to explain why recent law school graduates would want to become solo practitioners. In After the JD, a national longitudinal study of lawyers’ careers commissioned by the American Bar Foundation and NALP, solo practitioners who had recently graduated reporting being more satisfied with their career choice than any other category of lawyer, incluing big firm lawyers. They were also more likely to stay at their jobs long-term than firm lawyers.

This study followed graduates from the Class of 2000. If anything, given the subsequent development of the “gig” economy and the increasing focus on work-life balance and the importance of doing meaningful work, new lawyers may be even more likely to value the benefits that solo or small office practice can offer.

But since most law schools don’t prepare law students to not only practice law but also run their own small businesses (there are notable exceptions, like Suffolk Law’s Accelerator-to-Practice program), what’s an aspiring solo practitioner to do?

Enter the incubators. These programs, which may be created by law schools, state bars, local bar associations, non-profit organizations, or a combination of the above, provide recent law school graduates with the training and infrastructure to launch solo practices. They typically offer legal mentoring, business training, and free or discounted office space, legal research software, malpractice insurance, or other resources.

Incubators also encourage their participants to lower their overhead say that they can offer reasonable rates to modest means clients. While the participants may certainly feel good about engaging in such so-called “low bono” representation, it is also makes good business sense for new attorneys to pursue middle market clients that might otherwise forgo representation altogether, rather than compete directly with more seasoned attorneys who can attract clients willing to pay $250 per hour or more. In other words, instead of fighting for a bigger slice of the existing pie, new solpractitioners can grow their practices by expanding the pie.

The incubator movement has exploded recently. The first incubator was established at the City University of New York School of Law just over a decade ago. According to the American Bar Association’s online directory, there are now over 60 incubators in 30 states, plus foreign programs in Canada, the Dominican Republic, India, and Pakistan. Most of these have been added in just the last few years.

Incubator participants have by and large been enthusiastic about their experiences in the programs. But if there is one complaint, it is that not all such programs provide participants with direct access to a pool of potential clients. (Here, too, there are exceptions, like the Legal Entrepreneur Assistance Program, operated by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County in partnership with several law schools--including my own--which features a lawyer referral service.)

But even that is starting to change. Two related start-ups, Proboknow.com and Lowboknow.com, offer web-based platforms that connect clients looking for free or discounted legal services with lawyers willing to provide such services. They can also connect new lawyers with more experienced lawyers willing to mentor them on their cases. These platforms may be ideal for incubator participants looking for clients to serve. Pro bono cases may not put food on the table, but getting access even to these cases is valuable to new lawyers who want to develop expertise in a certain field.

These sites are currently only available in Southern California. Similarly, other resources, like Probono.net, also focus on particular metropolitan areas (New York and San Francisco). But Proboknow and Lowboknow aspire to go national in the near future.

Indeed, nationalization in the incubator movement looks to be the next big trend. This makes sense, given the inefficiency of having scores of incubators each develop their own training materials and support protocols.

For example, the Practicing Law Institute offers hours of free recorded content in their incubator and solo practitioner “boot camps” which provide useful tips and best practices. The Consortium for Access to Justice is a collaborative community of law practice incubators and nonprofit law firms that is positioned to become a national clearinghouse for all things incubator in the coming years. Even my law school, the first online school to participate in an incubator, is demonstrating that such programs can be national in scope. Our participants hail from as far west as Hawaii and as far east as Ohio.

The more incubators thrive and grow, the better off are law grads who want a meaningful practice, and the better off are the segments of society they serve--a rare win-win. For those law students and graduates who are considering taking the plunge and hanging out a shingle, it’s nice to know there are abundant and ever-increasing resources to make it feasible for them to do so.


Martin Pritikin is the dean of Concord Law School at Purdue University Global (concordlawschool.edu), the nation’s first fully online law school, with tuition at under $12,000 per year. He can be reached at martin.pritikin@purdueglobal.edu.


 

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