Plenty of millennial lawyers continue to duke it out for Big Law jobs, where the path to partnership is increasingly uncertain.
For others, the State Bar of Georgia’s innovative incubator program offers an opportunity to launch their own firms and earn a living while serving a different market—moderate-income people—where there is a huge unmet demand for legal services.
The incubator, dubbed Lawyers for Equal Justice, or L4EJ, taps into two traits associated with the millennial generation: entrepreneurship and social engagement. Now it has graduated its first class of law firm proprietors, who started the program when it launched a year and a half ago. They celebrated the milestone with a reception at the state bar last week.
One of them, JoAnna Smith, has started a groundbreaking family law firm with sliding-scale fees, because she believes regular people should be able to afford legal services. Her firm, Anderson Rupani & Smith, is also the first multilawyer firm the incubator has produced.
Smith was working for Decatur family law firm Richardson Bloom & Lines when she heard about L4EJ. Formerly a doula, she earned a joint J.D. and master’s degree in public health from Emory University three years ago.
“I found it frustrating that you either need a lot of money or no money for a lawyer. If you’re a normal person, you lack access to the legal system,” Smith said. “There was nobody serving the 80 percent of people who fall into the justice gap.”
“In any other market, with an 80 percent gap, people would jump all over it,” Smith added. “I thought the incubator was the perfect opportunity to try out this idea.”
The justice gap is particularly acute in family law, since divorce and child-custody disputes are common legal situations, yet many legal aid groups don’t take these cases.
Smith encouraged Jonathan Anderson, a 2015 Emory Law graduate, to join the incubator’s second class a year ago. They became partners, then hired another new Emory Law graduate, Sana Rupani (J.D. 2016), who joined the third class six months ago.
Anderson Rupani & Smith is still operating out of L4EJ’s office at Peachtree Center. In January, Smith said, the firm will move to a WeWork shared office space in Midtown, right by the Arts Center MARTA station.
Smith said the incubator has been an excellent conduit for the middle-income clients that she formed her firm to serve. Legal aid groups and “fancy firms” alike, she said, “love having a place to send people” who make too much money to qualify for legal aid but can’t afford to pay big bucks to a private firm.
“We get referrals from both ends of the spectrum,” she said.
Rates at Anderson Rupani & Smith, whose slogan is “Affordable family law for real people,” range from $75 to $180 an hour, depending on the client’s income.
Those making double the federal poverty guideline ($24,600 annually for a family of four) pay $75 an hour. That increases to a maximum of $180 an hour for incomes at four times the federal level or beyond.
Smith also has put in more than 300 hours pro bono for guardian ad litem cases, advising on children’s interests in a divorce, over her 18-month stint, prompting the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer Foundation in October to name her its Guardian Ad Litem of the Year.
From Employees to Owners
The incubator’s other three graduates, Greg Clement (Emory Law 2015), Erwin Mark Stephens (Mercer Law 2016) and Alicia Mack (Georgia State Law 2013) have established solo firms.
Clement, a criminal defense lawyer, has several jury trials under his belt already from his 18 months with L4EJ. The incubator’s director, Stephanie Everett, called him the group’s “resident trial lawyer,” saying he “never misses a chance to go to court.” That included taking on a divorce case the day before a trial over who should get custody of a shared pet.
“We got custody of the dog,” reported Clement, who represented the wife.
Stephens, who joined L4EJ while awaiting his bar exam results, is handling personal injury and family law. He has taken on some tough divorce cases pro bono for Georgia Legal Services, said L4EJ’s pro bono director, Sarah Babcock, who added that he “no longer says he’s representing the injured and the dead.” Stephens’ initial focus was personal injury and estate planning, she explained.
The fourth graduate, Alicia Mack, handles personal injury and workers’ compensation. In keeping with L4EJ’s goal of serving the underserved, she has earmarked a percentage of her firm’s profits for a local nonprofit.
How It Works
L4EJ is the only legal incubator in the nation that is a collaborative effort by the state bar and its five law schools. They provided seed funding along with the Georgia Supreme Court’s Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism. Most incubators for new lawyers don’t have such extensive stakeholder support, but instead are run by a single law school.
“To get five law schools to collaborate on anything is a remarkable thing,” noted the incubator’s board chair, H. “Bucky” Askew, at the reception.
Each law school provided $25,000, and the state bar is contributing $85,000 annually for the first three years to cover overhead and salaries for Everett, Babcock and client intake coordinator Keneecha Mays.
Georgia’s largest legal aid groups, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Georgia Legal Services Program and Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, are supplying referrals—generally clients with incomes more than double the federal poverty level.
Clients also may contact L4EJ directly through its website, which displays a large “Get Affordable Legal Help” button at the top of its homepage.
Askew announced at the reception that the incubator is on its way to self-sufficiency. It aims to add 10 new lawyers every six months, with current enrollment of 23, and it will break even with 30 participants, he said.
Participants pay $7,500 over their 18-month tenure, starting at between $50 and $250 per month for the first six months, with increases every six months. They also provide 40 hours a month of pro bono legal services for the initial six months. At that point, they create a business plan with L4EJ’s help so that they are offering at least 30 hours a month of pro bono or low bono work.
In return, participants receive coaching, resources, referrals and office space at the L4EJ’s Peachtree Center home—plus the moral support of their fellow incubees.
Two current L4EJ participants, D.A. Wilson and Quintin Lewis, said the camaraderie and resources have provided the extra boost they needed as new lawyers to successfully hang out their own shingles. “I’m not rich, but it’s paid dividends early on,” said Wilson, who is six months in.
“When you’re starting your own firm, you need as much help as you can get,” he added. “I’m not delusional—I didn’t think ‘Build it and they will come.’”
Wilson spent five years in banking at SunTrust before earning a law degree from Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School in 2016 and then an LL.M. in tax from Boston University.
Now he is representing entrepreneurs, investors and nonprofits on business and tax matters, drawing on his referral network of CPAs, financial advisers and tax-preparation professionals.
For his pro bono service, he’s writing wills and trusts—and handling landlord-tenant cases. They frequently go to mediation, the transactional lawyer explained, “so it keeps me from being in front of a judge.”
Lewis, who is 12 months in, worked for a couple of small firms after earning a J.D. at John Marshall in 2013, but he wanted to be his own boss.
“Once you’ve experienced yourself as the last set of eyes and the last check, there’s no going back to somebody hovering,” he said.
The coaching and training on the business aspects of running a law practice have been a big boost, he said. “Instead of going on Google,” he said, “there is someone in the office or a referral who can help.”
“This opportunity solidified my idea that I can do this with a little support,” Wilson said. He added that he has lawyer friends working at Big Four accounting firms who are thinking of quitting.
“I love showing up to work,” Wilson said. “I absolutely love what I do.”
For more information about the program, contact info@L4EJ.org. To refer modest and low-income clients, contact Everett at Stephanie@L4EJ.org.