New Lawyer Inc(ubator) Program
The Columbus Bar Association (CBA) created a fifteen month inc(ubator) program to help new lawyers (inclings) who wanted to establish a small or solo practice. While new attorneys may have the legal acumen to "hang their own shingle," they may not necessarily have the requisite business or management experience to start and maintain a law practice. The CBA recognizes this challenge and worked with the local legal community to develop a program designed to help ensure the success of these new lawyers. In April 2011, the CBA opened the doors of Columbus Bar inc, A Professional Development Center.1 The CBA is currently the only bar association sponsor of an incubator program. Other incubator programs are sponsored by law schools of which the incubator program at CUNY is the longest operating program that we know of. There is at least one incubator program sponsored by a Legal Aid Society (The Legal Aid Society of Orange County in New York).
The CBA program provides substantive law practice tips for the new lawyer and mentoring in an environment that provides an array of business resources: offices, equipment, mentors, special "101" level continuing legal education, training in best practices for law office management and specially designed networking opportunities to help new lawyers build a successful practice. The inc program accelerates the learning curve, reduces the false starts and minimizes the pain and danger of the more typical "trial and error" approach.
A relatively stringent application process was implemented to ensure that applicants took this opportunity seriously. Applicants had to be admitted to practice in Ohio within the last two years. They were required to submit a business plan, including a marketing plan, a three–year budget, recommendation letters, and agree to undergo a background check.
After the applications were screened, the individuals were invited to a "mixer" of sorts, so a panel of interviewers could evaluate the applicants in person and determine how well the individuals might interact with one another. Thereafter, eight applicants were selected, required to undergo intense ethical training on the nuances of operating in this kind of program, and given their keys.
The CBA scheduled as much training as possible in the first two months because as the inclings' practices started to grow, their court schedules interfered with their participation in the training sessions. An important component of the program was the in–office mentor –– a practicing lawyer and teacher who was winding down his own practice as he was preparing to retire. He was on site frequently giving easy access for the inclings to informally talk to him about their procedural and strategic questions.
The CBA supplemented the in–office mentor with a panel of lawyers who agreed to make themselves available on a timely basis to help answer procedural questions also.
Inasmuch as the development of Columbus Bar inc was somewhat of an experiment, the CBA entered into the first year with a pilot program mindset, looking to donors and sponsors to help underwrite the expenses. The building landlord graciously donated the space for the first year (just one floor beneath the bar association offices). Lexis–Nexis donated case management and billing software and Affinity Consulting donated their IT services to build a compatible suite of programs for these individuals in a cloud based computing system for portability. The Columbus Bar Foundation made a $50,000 grant to cover start–up expenses and the hiring of a part–time administrator and Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, a local law firm, donated furniture. Willis of Ohio, the CBA's endorsed insurance broker, made a generous donation and helped us develop a cost–effective professional liability policy for individuals participating in the program. Program participants also receive a number of in–kind benefits, including a 50% reduction in their Lawyer Referral Service dues, free CLE, and access to a number of CBA benefits and services.
While the costs associated with the first year of the pilot program were relatively nominal, the total value of the program exceeds $100,000. The costs are offset by the $350 monthly program fee paid by the participants. The monthly fee helps defray overhead costs such as phones, copiers, and office supplies.
The Office Administrator
A part–time program administrator (a newly minted lawyer) was hired to help bring the program to fruition and manage the daily operations of the incubator program once launched. In addition to meeting the administrative needs of the participants, the administrator recruits and coordinates visiting mentors, develops educational opportunities, and organizes networking events designed to assist the new lawyers with developing a client base.
The CBA created inc Limited in 2013 to assist attorneys with 0–5 years practice experience who are launching or have already opened a new firm, as well as well as those who are interested in making a career transition. inc Limited participants receive the benefits of the traditional inc program with the exception of office space. The participation fee is only $125 per month. This development allows the CBA help more new lawyers in a way that is cost effective for all involved.
Jocelyn Armstrong is the Administrator for the Columbus Bar Association inc Program and was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 2009.
Marion Smithberger is the Director of the CBA Lawyer Referral Service and the Columbus Bar Foundation Executive Director.
1 In 2012, Columbus Bar inc was recognized by the American Bar Association's General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division as a recipient of the Solo and Small Firm Project Award.