The number of legal incubators have been increasing in recent years to address the negative consequences of two divergent realities: A widening legal justice gap for those of limited means and a shrinking network of full employment opportunities for newly minted lawyers who need practical training. A legal incubator seeks to fulfill the twin needs of both clients and attorneys, who through participation in a legal incubator receive practical training and mentoring on real cases to develop a thriving practice that benefits the community. While bringing the public and lawyers together for mutual benefit is the overarching framework of a legal incubator, it coincides with the essence of access to justice efforts at lawyer referral services and professional development opportunities offered at bar associations.
In the fall of 2016, The Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) along with its Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) for pro bono services launched the Community Practice Law Incubator, a legal incubator that would leverage the existing programming within the bar association to provide legal referrals, pro bono opportunities, training, mentoring, networking, bench-bar activities, and Continuing Legal Education. Integrating incubator participants in all that a bar association can offer, including opportunities to assist indigent and modest means clients, is another model for how legal incubators can work. In this model, LRIS programs are naturally poised to be a strategic partner for the incubator lawyer (and for any lawyer) not only as a source for screened, paying clients to build a practice but also as a trustworthy resource when a client has a legal need outside his or her practice area.
There is no question too that adding attorneys with active mentoring and ongoing training to the pool of modest means attorneys who offer exceptionally affordable rates is a fantastic way to increase the availability of affordable legal services. The LRIS clients who have been referred to incubator participants are overwhelmingly satisfied, and in no short measure because of the low cost and care with which the legal services are rendered.
Once incubator participants have acquired mentoring and case experience, they make for compassionate, quality panel members, already imbued with the public service commitment to help LRIS clientele. And having enjoyed the benefits of LRIS and bar association offerings, those attorneys become the word-of-mouth and digital spokespersons to other attorneys. That only benefits the LRIS and the bar association in return.
The feedback and energy these new participants bring is also a welcomed boost to improve and innovate within an LRIS and bar association. To that point, our incubator attorneys wanted to communicate using an online digital platform instead of email, which would also allow them to post articles, trade commentary and exchange helpful information amongst themselves—almost like a listserv but still more intimate. This has also been a way for the relationship building in an incubator to have its own special channel outside of email to keep track of all progress, events, and ongoing feedback. In sum, a legal incubator not only is a natural for an LRIS to augment its affordable services to the community, it receives future, committed panelists and potentially, ideas to further improve and innovate.