Incubators are common in technology and business fields, providing such services as management training and office space and ultimately venture capital financing. But many people are unfamiliar with legal incubators and the services they provide.
The first legal incubator was established in 2007 at the City University of New York. Unlike business or technology incubators, which are intended solely to help entrepreneurs become successful, legal incubators also focus on providing the general public access to justice with affordable or free legal services. Legal incubators do this by assisting law-school graduates starting or growing their own practices.
Among the benefits to lawyers are training, instilling a sense of social responsibility, and providing a place to innovate new ideas.
How Do Legal Incubator Programs Work?
The ABA’s 2021 Legal Incubator Lawyers’ Survey found that 73% of law incubator participants joined an incubator program because they wanted to establish a new law firm or grow an existing practice. About 25% had tried to establish a law practice before but said they didn’t have the knowledge necessary to be successful.
The incubator program provides participants with basic training – not just on the lawyering side but also on the business side of opening and running a small business, which isn’t usually taught in law schools. Legal incubators also help connect these new lawyers with clients. Some incubator programs even provide discounted office space to participants and free access to products and services. Oftentimes, more experienced attorneys will mentor the newer attorneys.
What Types of Services Do Legal Incubators Provide?
Millennials and Generation Z are focused on social justice and the issues around it, according to the Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey. To that end, they expect to serve impacted communities even as they start their careers. The ABA survey indicated 12% of respondents said they joined a legal incubator solely because they wanted to assist low- and moderate-income clients in gaining access to legal services.
Some incubators focus on providing services to specific segments of a community. For example, an incubator may serve rural communities that do not have access to sufficient local legal services. Other incubators might focus on populations such as immigrants, the elderly, or domestic violence victims.
Often, services provided through legal incubators are offered to modest-means clients either pro bono or at discounted rates. There are two main ways attorneys in legal incubators hold down costs for clients: by limited scope representation or sliding scale fees. Limited scope representation means an attorney represents the client for a fixed portion of the case rather than the entire case, which holds down costs. Sliding scale reduces fees in proportion to the client's financial means to pay.
According to the ABA survey, 56% of current law incubator participants were required to provide pro bono services.
How Common Are Legal Incubators?
Legal incubators are still a fairly new concept, but they have gained traction since their establishment in New York. The ABA has a directory of current and planned incubators in the U.S. According to this resource, there are over 50 legal incubators in the U.S.
The concept is beginning to take off internationally with incubators in the Dominican Republic, India, Pakistan, and Spain, according to the ABA.
Although many incubators are now sponsored by bar associations and other organizations, many of the first groups were set up by law schools. Concord Law School was the first online law school to participate in an incubator program by partnering with a legal services provider in 2017. For that collaboration, Concord won an Access to Justice award from the ABA in 2018.
Currently, Concord sponsors student participation in a legal incubator based in Northern California, the Bay Area Law Incubator. Together, they provide remote access to mentoring sessions and training previously available only in person for attorneys to participants around the country. The program also seeks to connect lawyers and clients remotely, whether by email, telephone, or video, to make sure that distance is no longer an obstacle to providing clients legal representation.
Benefits of Participating in a Legal Incubator
There are a variety of benefits to participating in a legal incubator, from getting started to obtaining funding. Some of the benefits most cited by the respondents to the ABA survey included:
- Free or subsidized office space - Since many incubators are sponsored by schools or bar associations, they have space available.
- Mentorship from experienced lawyers - This is a key benefit since incubators are intended to give new lawyers access to experienced lawyers.
- Peer support - New lawyers can work through the difficult first months together.
- Practice management training - This gives new lawyers a chance to begin running a law office.
- Subsidized business costs - Discounted equipment and free software are two of the ways lawyers can save money.
- Substantive law training - This real-world legal experience is invaluable to a new lawyer.
In the ABA survey, more than half of all respondents said their time in a legal incubator prepared them “very well” or “extremely well” for dealing with:
- Client relations and retention
- Ethical issues
- Flat or fixed fee arrangements
- How to best serve low- and moderate-income clients
- Incorporating technology
- Unbundled or limited scope services
More than 80% of lawyers surveyed in the ABA survey expressed satisfaction with their career after being helped by legal incubators.
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