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Fred Rooney was the father of a toddler with another on the way in 1986 when he graduated from the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law and went to work at Lehigh Valley Legal Services in Allentown, Pa. “I would have stayed for the rest of my life if I could have afforded it, but if I’d applied as a client, I’d have qualified for services,” Rooney recalled. “Private practice was my only option if I wanted to continue working as an attorney in an underserved community and make a living.” Rooney opened a law office in Allentown serving clients about as poor as those who qualified for legal aid. After surviving a harrowing first few years, his “low bono” practice gradually prospered. Now he wants to make it easier for other attorneys to follow in his footsteps. Rooney, now director of the CUNY Community Legal Resource Network, has helped open an “incubator” program for community-minded attorneys who dream of a private practice that serves those who otherwise could not afford a lawyer. “Only about 25% of the people who qualify for Legal Aid get representation, and at least 70% of the New Yorkers who need an attorney can’t afford one. It is a civil justice crisis, but no one is talking about it,” Rooney said. “The only way to make a dent is to rely on small firms and solo practitioners. The incubator is important because it doesn’t help an underserved community if a bright, idealistic attorney hangs a shingle but goes out of business in a year.” In October, nine CUNY law graduates began paying $500 per month for a fully equipped work space in the New York offices of Laura Gentile, another CUNY law graduate and now an adjunct CUNY professor who teaches small-firm practice. Gentile, who has been in private practice as Gentile & Associates for 20 years, guides the attorneys in matters of law and the art of making a living as a solo practitioner or small-firm attorney serving clients who cannot afford large-firm attorney fees. Law schools typically do little to teach attorneys who want to build a small practice how to stay afloat in the early years when cash flow is meager and the learning curve for running a business is steep, she said. “For me, the business part was what I had to learn,” Gentile said. “I spent three years learning to be a lawyer. Learning why it is important to have a good relationship with a bank was trickier.” Rooney said that because, in private practice, he held close to the ideals that led him to take the legal aid job, he was able to both make a living and help people. “I was dealing with a community without much money, but whenever I was willing to be creative it came back triplefold,” Rooney said. “The next time a neighbor or someone in the family had an accident, they came to me. The incubator is a way to help lawyers succeed in the communities where they are needed most.” Just such an attorney is Gabriel Munson. He took a job in 1988 as a clerk at the Legal Aid Society of New York, gradually working his way up to law librarian. Munson, 42, graduated from CUNY law school in 2003. He left his job as a criminal defense attorney at the Legal Aid Society for a spot in the incubator. “I have chosen this path, to be my own boss with my own office, directing my professional energies as I choose,” said Munson, now Gabriel R. Munson P.C.

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