October 15, 2015 Dialogue

Legal Incubators: The Dream of Modest Means Panels, Fulfilled

By Tiela Chalmers

Remember when Lawyer Referral Services were just starting to create Modest Means panels? How exciting it was. At last, there was something for those whose income was above the legal aid limit, but far below what was needed to pay a full-fee attorney. Our staff on the phones finally had a proper referral for those who were over-income for legal aid and pro bono programs!

But then came the problem of recruiting attorneys willing to serve on these modest means panels. Practices differ and some LRS programs were able to get newer attorneys to sign up as a way to build experience and earn their way onto the full fee panels. In some markets, we’ve seen a real flood of new attorneys with little or no experience, and no practical training or mentoring, hanging out their shingles and trying to get on the panel. Given the struggle to identify attorneys willing to charge significantly less than the going rate, yet wanting to maintain standards for panel admission, what should be done? To what extent are we willing to embrace the principle behind that fabulous New Yorker cartoon, in which the lawyer tells the man sitting across from him, “You have an excellent case, Mr. Jones. Now, how much justice can you afford?”

Along comes the incubator movement. Legal incubators help train and mentor new attorneys to open up their own practices. Many programs across the country are based in law schools, while others are free-standing or come out of local bar associations. Some (though not all) focus on providing low-fee services to the “modest means community.”

These projects are generally designed to meet two separate needs. First, they aim to increase access to justice for people of modest means. A typical divorce and child custody matter could cost $10,000 in attorney’s fees, and people who are living from paycheck to paycheck, earning $15/hour ($31,500 annually), cannot possibly afford this cost—especially on top of all the other costs relating to divorce. We’ve all heard how, in some places, 80% of the litigants in family court are self-represented. We need to build resources for this population. Self-Help Centers are a great start, but for more complicated matters (and to me, child custody is by definition complicated), more is needed.

I had the experience of going to court some time ago in a case relating to my daughter. I’m an attorney, and was in practice more than 20 years at that point. I had handled family law matters and had overseen the work of family practitioners, too. Still, I was completely overwhelmed when we got to court. My child’s welfare was at stake and I had trouble taking in what was happening. When, after the hearing, my attorney said, “It was great, the judge said X!” I looked at her blankly and said, “She did?” If this happened to me, what happens to the people with 5th grade educations, or those for who English is a second language, or those who are the victims of domestic violence? Self-representation is a nightmare for those people, and we are kidding ourselves if we think that they are getting access to justice without an attorney. Legal incubators opening across the country will create more solo firms willing to take on modest means clients—at modest means rates.

Secondly, of course, legal incubators provide law jobs for recent graduates who are struggling to find work—and offer the real-world training that law schools are not providing.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, our Alameda County Bar Association is involved in creating a legal incubator in partnership with five Bay Area law schools. Participants will stay in the program for two years, and get classes and hands-on mentoring to open up their own practices. After an initial pro bono placement (20 hours a week for 6 months) to learn the ropes of a particular practice area, participants will begin receiving cases from our LRS Modest Means panel. San Francisco and Contra Costa County LRS programs have also agreed to add the incubator participants to their Modest Means panels. Participants are asked to ensure that at least 50% of their cases are for modest means clients (and to continue that commitment after the two-year period is up). We hope this means that the participants will have a real leg-up on starting their own practices, will see the real value that LRS programs can offer to their panel members, and will be able to help a significant number of modest means clients now and into the future.

This, in short, may be another step in the realization of the modest means dream. For more information on our incubator, see www.bayarealegalincubator.org. For a list of incubators nation-wide, see http://www.americanbar.org/groups/delivery_legal_services/initiatives_awards/program_main.html.

Tiela Chalmers

CEO, Alameda County Bar Association

Tiela Chalmers is the CEO of the Alameda County Bar Association, east of San Francisco. Prior to accepting her CEO position in 2014, Chalmers served as a consultant on access to justice issues and formerly was the Executive Director for the Volunteer Legal Services Program at The Bar Association of San Francisco.