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Vol. 45, No. 4

Changing spaces: Bar incubator programs adapt to trends in real estate, legal tech, work preferences

By Marilyn Cavicchia

When incubator programs were first developed, in the years after the 2008 recession and the corresponding wave of law students graduating without jobs, many followed a fairly standard model that has remained more or less in place. A small group of lawyers who had been in practice for no more than five years would gather in a shared office space to receive 12 to 18 months’ worth of support in building practices that were economically sustainable and that served a certain proportion of modest means clients.

In recent years, the incubator concept has not gone away, and in fact, new ones have been launched as recently as fall 2019. But the same types of changes that have affected the legal profession as a whole have prompted many to adjust the model—sometimes in ways that amount to small tweaks, and sometimes in ways that signal a major rethinking.

Among those who oversee incubator programs that are under the auspices of bar associations or foundations, one of the biggest questions seems to be whether physical workspace remains as important as it once was, in a time when virtual tools allow many lawyers to choose to work from anywhere.

‘Turning the program on its head’

The program making the biggest shift toward virtual tools and away from physical workspace may be the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator, which, when it began in 2017, occupied well-equipped, prime real estate in downtown Austin. Though the State Bar of Texas serves the entire state, TOJI participants needed to relocate to Austin—which wasn’t a problem from a recruiting standpoint, according to Anne-Marie Rábago, the program’s director, who says many lawyers moved from other parts of the country just to be part of TOJI.

But then a couple of trends began to accelerate, Rábago says: Austin has experienced a boom, leading to increased traffic, a higher cost of living, and more expense to retain the shared office space, which fewer TOJI participants were excited to drive to and work in. At the same time, she notes, virtual tools such as Slack and Zoom became more robust—and it was clear that TOJI participants and their clients were becoming adept at using them.

“One of the statistics I started looking at last year with my program is that even though we were based in central Texas, we have 254 counties in this state, and the lawyers based here in Austin still managed to serve clients in 78 of our counties,” Rábago says, noting that this indicated that a significant number of clients were content to be served remotely using technology, rather than meeting with their lawyer in a physical space.

Going forward, Rábago says, both Slack and Zoom will be used to deliver the program elements, including a weekly “water cooler” chat, and participants will be encouraged to meet in person with other TOJI participants in their part of the state. A three-day, in-person kick-off event in Austin in February 2020 was essential for the newest TOJI cohort, she adds, as a way to establish personal connections that will not occur by being physically in the same space every day over the course of the program. Rábago hopes that another change—shifting to a 12-month program where everyone is at the same stage, rather than 18 months on a staggered schedule—will also help participants feel more connected to each other.

Eliminating the need to move to Austin will foster connection in another important sense, Rábago notes: By design, TOJI attracts lawyers who are drawn toward giving back, and relocating meant siginficant disruption.

“Instead of pulling them out of communities that they were connected to, to come here to Austin, they get to stay in the community and continue to build on that allegiance and service that they are compelled toward at home and in the places they’ve already established themselves,” she explains.

On a related note, TOJI recently formalized something that had already been happening for some time: The program has dropped the requirement (which had become more of a guideline) that participants be in their first five years of practice—shifting the focus from helping new lawyers launch a practice, necessarily, and toward helping lawyers at any career stage build an efficient practice with a focus on access to justice.

Smaller ways to rethink physical space

Perhaps because they are under the auspices of metro bars rather than state bars, many other incubators are maintaining a physical space—but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to the trends of rising real estate costs and advancing technology that facilitates virtual practice.

For example, when the Dallas Bar Association launched its Entrepreneurs in Community Lawyering incubator in fall 2019, physical space was part of the plan—but not in the usual way. “Thanks to a generous donation from Dallas attorneys Julie Johnson and Jay English, the [ECL] members have complimentary virtual tenant leases in the Johnson English Law Center. They receive mail and meet clients there,” says Program Director Saedra Pinkerton. “Most use this in conjunction with a home office.”

Pinkerton, who jokingly refers to herself as a “team mom” for the first ECL cohort of nine lawyers, also practices family law and has her office in that same building, which will allow her to mentor ECL participants in that area of practice, at the same time that she assists all participants, regardless of practice area.

Similarly, participants in the Toledo Bar Association Fellowship Collaborative, which launched in 2018, have access to a communal workspace and a private office for client meetings—and they also have the flexibility to work from home.

“I would say each fellow has used the space differently. Some only use it to meet with clients, and others spend much more time in the communal work area,” notes Maggie Humphrey, the TBA’s assistant bar counsel and director of community engagement. “Our goal with this project was to help the fellows launch their practice, so we want to be as accommodating as we can to their preferences.”

Humphrey foresees continuing to offer the physical space, and especially the private office for client meetings, because many new lawyers (a requirement for participation in this incubator) still need this type of space and find it very difficult to afford. But that’s not the only reason, she adds: “We also value the connection that is made in the fellows’ workspace.”

One well-known and long-established incubator, the Chicago Bar Foundation Justice Entrepreneurs Project, changed locations in late 2019, in large part because of rising rent and taxes for the loft-style space it had occupied since 2013. The JEP moved into a suite within a coworking building in the Chicago Loop, says Jessica Bednarz, director of innovation and training at the CBF.

During the first six months, JEP attorneys don’t have to pay anything for the space and have access to “floater” desks and workspace (as well as typical co-working amenities such as a copier, internet access, and free beverages), Bednarz says; in months seven through 18, they pay $300 per month and have access to dedicated desks.

Aside from cost savings, Bednarz says, one real advantage to the new space is that if JEP participants want a change of pace and perspective during their workday, they can go up to the top floor to work or to meet up with entrepreneurs from outside the legal industry.

But even though the location has changed, Bednarz says it’s still integral to the program. “Many of our attorneys do work from home at least part of the week out of convenience,” she notes. “With that being said, I think all of them would tell you that one of the biggest benefits of the JEP is being able to bounce ideas off and communicate with the other attorneys in the program, and many of those interactions take place in person in the JEP space.”

Beyond the physical space

This article is focused primarily on how some incubators are rethinking the workspace that their participants use. Here are a few other notable details about these programs:

  • The Dallas Bar Association considers the Entrepreneurs in Community Lawyering program to be an important way to connect new lawyers to the bar. Membership is required, but fees are waived while they’re in the program. Pinkerton says that participants become closely involved with the bar through mentors, program speakers, events, bar leaders, and other points of connection. “I think the program shows them the importance of bar service throughout their career,” she says.
  • Both the University of Toledo College of Law and the Toledo Legal Aid Society are partners in the Toledo Bar Association Fellowship Collaborative. TLAS runs the public defender’s office and has a program that hires lawyers part time right out of law school, so from the beginning, this incubator has been open to lawyers practicing criminal law. The 2019 cohort had one fellow who decided he wanted to practice transactional law, and the program was able to accommodate him, too. “As long as we have seasoned TBA members who continue to step up and assist with training and mentoring,” Humphrey says, “we will be open to the requests that our fellows present.”
  • The Chicago Bar Foundation Justice Entrepreneur Project has an impressive slate of partners in legal tech and other fields, and a well-developed alumni program through which past participants who commit to a set of principles and practice standards continue to access referrals, programming, and other resources. For example, alumni commit to using set pricing, offering customized (aka unbundled) services where appropriate, and “leveraging technology to increase client engagement and efficiency,” Bednarz says.
  • The virtual aspect of the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator is not only a means to open the program to other parts of the state and get out from under high real estate costs. Another aim is to continue to show both lawyers and clients that it’s possible to deliver excellent legal service using legal technology and alternative billing models. “There are so many lawyers who have always done what they’ve always done and just don’t have an interest in changing or risking or trying something new,” Rábago says. “So, this is a way to address that.”