Consider Law Schools With In-House Firms, Incubators

Delece Smith-Barrow

After Nicholas Edelson graduated from law school in 2003, it took him years to find his niche as an attorney working with subprime mortgages.

Just when he was comfortable, the subprime market took a turn for the worse.

"By the time the bubble collapsed in August of 2007, I was in contract to buy my own place, my wife was pregnant and my own business was going right down the tubes," says the City University of New York graduate. "I joined the incubator right after that."

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Edelson was a member of the inaugural group admitted to the Incubator for Justice program at CUNY. The incubator provides between eight and 10 law graduates with training and mentoring as they start their own practices serving disadvantaged communities. Attorneys stay in the incubator for about 18 months.

The school created the first law school incubator, says Lisa Reiner, interim director of the Community Legal Resource Network at CUNY. Since then possibly a dozen schools have started similar programs, which have some similarities to a school's legal clinic.

One main difference is the number of cases someone may handle. A law student may have one or two cases through a school clinic. A law graduate in an incubator may have 25 cases.

Schools that provide new attorneys with the option of joining an incubator or a similar program can be enticing to prospective law students.

"A number of people come to law school saying 'My goal is to set up a community practice,'" says Reiner. "It's very hard to just do it on a dime with no community and no support. So that's an attractive option for people who have that idea and they want to do that. It's also attractive as the landscape changes as far as what options there are for lawyers to practice. The option of practicing on one's own becomes more attractive to people."

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At the Pace Community Law Practice, which opened in September, law graduates get hands-on training serving clients who often can't afford the standard rate for legal services. Their practice areas include immigration, family law and disability rights, among other things.

"We're learning about office management, ethics, interviewing and counseling clients, advocacy," says Craig Relles, a 2012 graduate of Pace University.

After a year, fellows gain some independence and can open their own office. Relles says it's an excellent transition from law school to practicing as an attorney. But wanting to help people who can't afford legal services is imperative.

"For people who are just looking to have a job, something like this probably isn't the best thing," he says. "You need to be also committed to the work."

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For Kristi Lee Graham, working at her school's incubator allowed her to jump-start her career goals. She always wanted to start her own practice but thought it would take five to 10 years.

Graham joined The Center for Solo Practitioners at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, her alma mater, just a few months after it opened last fall. It had been less than five years since she graduated.

"Even though I've been practicing a couple years, there's still things that I have questions on," says Graham, who worked with low-income clients at Legal Aid. "It's great to have someone there that has the answer."

However, school incubators don't shield graduates from the growing pains that come with starting a business.

"I don't have an IT department," Graham says, when describing the difficulty of setting up a secure email on her own.

Instead of creating an incubator, the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University is starting a full-fledged firm that opens this year. Roughly 10 graduates will be hired as associates at the ASU Alumni Law Group, and there will be five to seven partners who have a minimum of 10 years of experience practicing law.

The paid associates will be encouraged to stay up to three years, unless they mess up.

"Those partners will fire associates that are not getting the job done," says ASU law school Dean Douglas Sylvester. The partners will also decide which cases the firm brings in - they'll seek clients that force associates to tackle unfamiliar areas of the law - and spend up to 60 percent of their time providing educational opportunities for recent graduates.

Even at an incubator, the experience can be likened to what will take place at ASU.

"We're practicing as we would in a private firm or anything like that," says Relles of Pace.

For him, there have been no drawbacks from joining the Pace Community Law Group. "This program has built a foundation for me that will last throughout my career."

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