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Vol. 38, No. 4

Chicago Bar Foundation program helps new lawyers, and moderate-income clients

by Marilyn Cavicchia

It’s no secret that there’s a big gap when it comes to meeting legal needs for people of moderate means.

“If I went out on the street right now, probably eight out of 10 people I’d talk to couldn’t afford us,” said Robert Glaves, himself a lawyer and the executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, as well as a past president of the National Conference of Bar Foundations. With incomes that are too high for legal aid and too low for lawyer referral, those in the middle often either represent themselves, forego legal help that they need, or turn to online providers like LegalZoom.

Meanwhile, it’s also no secret that today’s new lawyers often struggle to establish themselves and make ends meet.

About three years ago, said Glaves, speaking to NCBF at the group’s 2014 Midyear Meeting in Chicago, the foundation began to think very seriously about how to bring the two groups together. The result is the Justice Entrepreneurs Project, an incubator program that began in June 2013 to help a select group of new lawyers start a practice focused on modest-means clients.

It might sound more like a bar association program, but Glaves stressed that the mismatch between lawyers and clients is so great that it represents an access to justice issue, one that has become more pronounced in the years during and after the recession. This project is the first time that the CBF has addressed access to justice for those of moderate means, Glaves noted, adding, “It’s great for the bar foundation to take the lead.”

Joining Glaves to discuss JEP was Taylor Hammond, the director of the program, and Katrice Hall, a 2010 graduate of the Chicago-Kent College of Law and a current JEP participant.

Founded on risk-taking

In setting up JEP, Glaves said, the CBF looked at a lot of incubators in technology and business, including ones in Chicago, Boston, and South Dakota. Those incubators couldn’t be more different from a law office, Glaves said; for one thing, their offices are more open and conducive to collaboration. There’s a different spirit, too.

In other types of incubators, Glaves explained, “the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is risk.” That is, participants are encouraged to try new things in order to meet the needs of whatever market they’re in. “Did we ever learn a thing like that—ever—in law school?” Glaves asked.

In looking for a location for JEP, the CBF passed on the idea of donated space at a law school, Hammond said; there might have been tradeoffs, he explained, and the foundation had a distinct vision in mind. Eventually, JEP settled in a loft-like space just west of Chicago’s Loop, creating a workplace that Hammond said is private enough for conversations with clients but also open and “invigorating.”

How it works

JEP is now recruiting its next group of 10 participants, who will start in May, Hammond said; the project will then include 30 lawyers at all times. Every six months, he added, the 10 JEP participants who have been there the longest will strike out on their own, and another 10 will come in. But in a very real sense, they’re always on their own: Another decision the CBF made early on, Glaves said, is that each participant is in business for him- or herself rather than working for JEP as an umbrella organization.

It was believed that this approach would help the participants eventually “leave the nest,” Glaves said, because they would have to go out and find their own clients and work out how to make a living from the very beginning.

That’s also why the CBF ended up deciding not to pay for participants’ malpractice insurance, so that they can get in the habit of securing it for themselves. Each participant is required to have this coverage, Hammond said, once they begin taking paying clients. During their first six months, JEP participants spend 20 hours a week providing pro bono service through placements with legal aid organizations. They are matched with areas of the law that interest them, Hammond noted, and use this time to gain experience and connections.

As for finding paying clients, participants are not under an imperative to set a reduced fee, but it is understood that purpose of the program is to help close the modest means gap—and for new lawyers to be entrepreneurial and innovative in determining fees that the market will bear and that will also keep them in business. This may involve flat fees, fixed fees, and unbundling of services, Hammond said.

The selection process is both very important and very competitive, Hammond said. For example, for one set of 10 slots, the CBF received 55 applications. These always include a resume, a transcript, and a statement of interest. From there, Hammond and another person interviewed half of the applicants, and then narrowed it down to 10.

What are they looking for? First, someone with a public interest and a “doing-good mindset,” Hammond said—someone who wants to serve. Second, the successful applicant is clearly entrepreneurial. That is, he or she has actively decided to open a solo firm, rather than having this as a default option—or using JEP as a springboard to a job in a larger firm.

One participant’s experience

Echoing what many other young lawyers have said, Hall noted that “No one really teaches you how to practice in law school.” She worked in the attorney general’s office for two years after graduation and then decided she would rather open her own practice, focused on probate, real estate, and housing.

From those first two years of legal work, Hall said, she already “knew how to put on a suit and be a lawyer.” More challenging, though, has been the business side of managing a practice. Hall is grateful for the guidance she and the other participants receive from Catherine Sanders Reach, director of law office management and technology at the Chicago Bar Association and a member of the JEP Steering Committee. Hall is also a paralegal, which she says has been another great help.

About seven months in at the time of Midyear, Hall said her practice is thriving and that she is not nervous about exiting JEP in December— because of the great support she’s received, because of how the program fosters independence, and because she has an office in the suburbs as well as the one at JEP. She has made good use of her time in JEP, she said, to talk to a lot of people and learn from the many bar members she comes in contact with.

As for her clients, Hall said she’s learned a lot from them about the gap in legal access for those of modest means. Often, she explained, they come to her with stories of having been declined by legal aid because their income was too high, or of getting sticker shock after approaching a big firm—sometimes after being presented with an unexpected bill for an initial consultation. In general, Hall noted, the legal profession maintains “secrecy around fees” to a degree that many other professions do not.

How does Hall get clients? Some are drawn in by the JEP website, some are referred by other participants (Hall noted that there’s not a feeling of competition among them), and some come via the Chicago area’s legal aid hotline if it’s determined that the caller’s income is too high to qualify there.

Hall also has her own website and uses social media such as Instagram and Twitter. For example, if someone tweets a complaint about a child support issue in Chicago, she might reply with a hashtag like “#childsupportChicago” and give her web address. JEP is currently working on a new client referral system, Hall added.

Next steps

Also in the works, Glaves said, is a more formal mentoring program for JEP participants. Those who develop and oversee JEP have been learning from the first participants, he explained, and have been adding or changing some elements as needed.

The hope, Hammond said, is that the “support network of each other” will continue beyond the participants’ 18 months in the program. As for the program itself, eventually it will spin off and become its own nonprofit, Hammond said. Funding the program for the first year to 18 months took $200,000, Hammond said, and now JEP must find some additional funding to sustain it in the future.

Glaves noted that the CBF recognizes that this program requires a long-term commitment and that it might take a while before JEP can spin off on its own. Some board members were initially “conservative” about the JEP concept in general, he said, but overall, support has been strong.

“If you decide to try something like this,” he said, “a few people will be scared, but others will get excited.”

That excitement extends well beyond the bar foundation, Hammond said, noting that all the various groups that have a stake in training for new lawyers and in access to justice have rallied around JEP.

From the bar association to the foundation, to legal aid and the area law schools, he said, “the entire community has supported this program.”