December 12, 2015 Dialogue

Grantee Spotlight: Introducing the New Solo: Legal Aid Society of Orange County’s Incubator Program

By Negah Mouzoon

In 2013, William T. Tanner started scouting for likely incubator participants at swearing–in ceremonies. He would tap on strangers' shoulders until he found a newly minted graduate who was interested in his proposition. "Volunteer at Legal Aid and I can get you into court within the week," he would say. More often than not, that was all he needed to say.

As a directing attorney over the past 19 years, Tanner has been heavily involved in the growth of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County (LASOC), a grantee of the Legal Services Trust Fund of the State Bar of California. Yet, it wasn't until Robert J. Cohen, LASOC's Executive Director, proposed to adopt an incubator project that Tanner took measures to develop one.

Cohen had just returned from a 2009 American Bar Association committee meeting where he had met Fred Rooney, the founder of the first–ever legal incubator at the City University of New York School of Law (CUNY Law School). CUNY Law School has been successful in using pro bono service as a training ground for new attorneys learning the practice of law. This chance meeting and exchange of ideas made an immediate impression upon Cohen. "I thought LASOC was in a unique position to expand on Fred's idea by utilizing its fee–generating referral service, pro bono service opportunities, and relationship with the court and law schools," he recounts.

The Introduction of the Legal Incubator

In layman's terms, "incubator" usually evokes the image of an intensive care unit used to hospitalize newborns or a dome–shaped machine used to warm and care for chicken eggs. Similarly, a professional incubator supports the development of emerging professionals by providing expert mentorship and logistical support to ensure they have the necessary tools of their trade to be successful.

Since the 1990s, incubators have been prevalent in the fields of business and technology, preparing entrepreneurs and start–ups for success in their respective professional niches. In the legal education field, however, incubators took more time to prove their worth. Luz Herrera, an assistant dean at UCLA School of Law and founder of Community Lawyers Inc., believes incubators lacked value initially because they hadn't been considered in the right way. "Fred had an innovative model, but that model wasn't gaining any traction with law schools. I think part of the reason incubators have taken off now is because law schools have a theoretical framework in which to put it in that takes into account the job market and the needs of the majority of lawyers," say Herrera. Rooney and Herrera worked together to promote the 2007 launch of CUNY Law School's incubator as the first successful application of a legal services incubator. The CUNY Law School incubator has been replicated abroad in India and the Dominican Republic, and is finally gaining traction in the United States.

While many attorneys and academics advocate that schools run their own incubators, Tanner recommends they first coordinate with their local legal aid organization. Too often, law schools "incubate" business litigators and transactional attorneys who rarely are capable of helping communities with their legal matters. "Although law schools and legal aid organizations have similar goals and values, legal aid organizations provide opportunities that law schools cannot," he says, "we see clients every day; we train lawyers every day; we are in court every day; we have the connections and resources to ensure lawyers experience the practice of law and not just the theory."

Lawyer Entrepreneur Assistance Program (LEAP)

At LASOC, mentorship has always been available to new attorneys. It simply wasn't until 2009 that it was given the name, the "Lawyer Entrepreneur Assistance Program" (LEAP). Since then, LEAP has been tremendously successful in preparing new attorneys for their first courtroom appearances and matching them with clients from underserved communities.

With funding provided in part by the ABA Catalyst Grant, LASOC has expanded its current pilot incubator program, LEAP, into a more extensive clinical practicum for new attorneys interested in starting their own solo practices.

In exchange for completing at least 300 hours of pro bono representation over the course of a year, each LEAP attorney has access to special intensive trainings, "how–to" style videos, sample scripts for client interviews, written procedures for direct and cross–examinations, weekly case reviews conducted by retired judges and experienced attorneys, and the expertise of legal aid staff.

In January 2015, the program kicked off with a law practice management boot camp where new attorneys learned strategies for operating self–sufficient practices—from designing a letterhead and obtaining a business license to properly interviewing clients.

Current participants can shadow more experienced attorneys at various weekly clinics and, once comfortable, provide advice and extended representation to LASOC clients. LEAP attorneys who participate in family law clinics, in particular, have the opportunity to attend a weekly case review led by retired judicial commissioners Richard G. Vogl and Thomas Schulte.

In explaining the value of the weekly case review, Ian Kasoff, a current LEAP attorney, says, "It's the ability to ask questions that is so important. You come across a lot of situations where you don't know the answers. Accessing resources, such as this, provides foundational knowledge and guides you as you figure out the answers."

Participants may also attend weekly classes at LASOC for Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) purposes and contribute to an internal wiki dedicated to outlining practical skills and law relevant to their practice areas. 

The program has fallen victim to its own success as the surge in participants easily outpaces increasing resources and designating additional staff members. Now, Tanner no longer searches for would–be participants at swearing–in ceremonies. Instead, graduates come to him as the program has cultivated a strong following by word of mouth at law schools.

Partnering with Law Schools

What makes LEAP so unique is that LASOC is partnering with several Southern California law schools, including Whittier, Chapman, UC Irvine, and Western State, to build the first–ever regional incubator. Through a competitive application process, each school has already enrolled at least three, and up to ten, participants, bringing the total number of participants to 28 attorneys.

Under this partnership, LASOC provides oversight and mentorship while law schools supply new and eager public–interest minded attorneys. In addition, LASOC offers office space to attorneys in exchange for reduced rent and program participation. Thus, while participants learn the practice of law by providing pro bono service, they are encouraged to take referrals from LASOC's Lawyer Referral Service (LRS) to build up their paying practice.

The new and expanded version of LEAP not only continues training in the areas of family law, domestic violence, debt collection, civil harassment, unlawful detainer, conservatorship, Section 8 termination, unemployment insurance benefits, and wage claims, but will add trusts and estates, and bankruptcy, personal injury, probate, and discovery to the roster of seminars. Trainings will endow participants with the knowledge and skills they need to immediately take basic cases in each practice area.

Cultivating Self–Confidence and Self–Sufficiency

LEAP allows participants to experience the natural progression of a case, from conducting an intake to providing extended representation, for a single client. This comprehensive experience is what gives solo attorneys the building blocks of their practice. Once attorneys are comfortable with routine default proceedings, they begin taking more complex cases and contested hearings.

Frequent assessments help participants gauge their understanding of the law, comfort with court practices, and understanding of the needs of indigent clients, thereby helping them build their confidence.

Paying Pro Bono Dividends

In 2013, LEAP participants provided advice and representation to over 400 clients who otherwise would not have received legal assistance, and made 180 court appearances.

In this first year of the new and improved program, it is estimated that participants will provide an additional 3,000 hours of pro bono service to approximately 500 income eligible clients. The program not only cultivates a dedicated volunteer attorney community, but also premises the success of participants' solo practices on representing underserved modest–income clients.

By teaching solo practitioners through the lens of career public interest attorneys, LASOC believes LEAP will inspire a new generation of legal philanthropists.

Becoming the Employer

"Law school doesn't teach you how to be an attorney. It teaches you the law," Ian Kasoff pointedly says.

By learning to employ themselves, law school graduates can overcome poor employment prospects. The program allows each participant to personally define success—whether that means having the ability to work part–time in order to accommodate raising a family, run a long–term virtual law office or work at the more typical brick and mortar office. 

Fred Rooney calls LEAP the "next wave" for its unique ability to bring together law schools and legal aid organizations. "We've created a prototype that can be replicated to reshape legal services for millions living in this country," Rooney says, "it's remarkable."
Indeed, it is.

Negah Mouzoon

Managing Editor, The Notice

Negah Mouzoon is the Managing Editor of The Notice, a weekly publication of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County.