Yogi Patel had a few years of experience under his belt at a law firm and in the legal department of a small construction company, but the idea of starting a solo practice was still daunting.
“I was thinking about the logistics,” he said. “Where would I set up an office? Where would I find my clients? Previously, when I was working at my other employers, I never had to think about that. Not having clients and managing the overhead were my biggest fears.”
Patel took the leap in February after receiving an enticing offer from the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, where he’d received his J.D. in 2006. The school offered Patel a spot in its incubator — a program that helps recent graduates establish solo practices while also encouraging free or low-cost legal services to underserved communities.
The school offers low-cost office space in midtown Manhattan and staff support for up to two years to a select number of graduates aiming to establish themselves as solos or launch small firms. The program offers more than office space; participants have access to a large network of experienced solo practitioners who function as mentors, and they enjoy an internal support network among their colleagues in the incubator, which helps to reduce the isolation many solo practitioners experience.
“The setup lends itself to a ton of collaboration,” Patel said. “There are a lot of attorneys in the office with different levels of experience in different areas. We help each other. I have other attorneys read everything that goes out of the office.”
CUNY’s program was the first of its kind when it debuted in 2007, but now law schools around the country have launched solo incubators, and more are on the way. The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law unveiled its solo and small-firm incubator last fall, and the University of Maryland School of Law introduced its incubator in January.
The Charlotte School of Law plans to have its Small Practice Center up and running next summer. Faculty and administrators at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Georgia State University College of Law and the University of Dayton School of Law are among those considering adding similar programs. It’s not just law schools — the Columbus Bar Association in Ohio began a year-long incubator in April with eight young attorneys. That program makes use of office space and money donated by law firms and other legal service providers.
“The economy had to tank and a lot of people had to become unemployed for law schools to ask: ‘How can we help people hang out their shingle?’ ” said Luz Herrera, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law who hopes to establish an incubator program there. “I really think this is a function for law schools and bar associations, but it’s going to take awhile. I’m not sure most law schools really know how to do this yet.”
Certainly, more recent graduates are opting to go solo, according to data from the National Association for Law Placement. Three percent of the law graduates in 2005 went into solo practice, compared with 5.7% of the class of 2010. That growth directly correlated to shrinking percentages of recent graduates landing jobs at large firms.
“Looking down the line at the economy, we knew we would have more students looking at going solo, and we were looking for ways to creatively meet that need,” said Dana Morris, assistant dean for career development at Maryland Law. “We absolutely did this in response to the economy.”
Fred Rooney, the director of CUNY’s solo-focused Community Legal Resource Network and the driving force behind the school’s incubator, has been traveling the country meeting with law school administrators who want to learn more about the program. Numerous law school administrators have been coming to New York to see the incubator first-hand. Rooney has also visited law schools in Europe, Central America and India to share his experience.
“Law schools all around the country are very interested in providing these services to their graduates,” he said. “At a time when job opportunities are dismal, incubators offer a chance to create jobs for new lawyers.”
CUNY has been providing technical support to other law schools in the form of handbooks, contracts and other startup documents. Establishing a successful solo incubator requires a significant investment in staff and resources, Rooney said.
Student interest may prove a challenge as well, said Carolyn Elefant, a solo practitioner in Washington who writes the solo-focused blog, Myshingle.com. Law schools are beginning to offer more resources for graduates who wish to start their own firms, but students aren’t always keen to participate, she said. Elefant rarely sees a large turnout for the talks she gives at law schools about going solo.
“While I applaud these programs, I also have to be honest that in my own experience, I have not seen a huge student demand or interest in solo and small-firm practice,” she said. “While it’s true that many career offices do not even mention the solo option, that is changing — and yet, in my own experience, I’ve seen little interest by students.”
Herrera noted that most of the schools actively pursuing incubators are not the most prestigious ones, as defined by the U.S. News & World Report‘s law schools ranking, partly because students at those schools have better chances of landing law firm jobs. “Organizations like Harvard don’t even want to bother putting their resources into something like this,” she said.
The few solo incubators that are up and running employ slightly different models. Several have a clear civil justice emphasis, while others are more business-oriented. They vary in length from six months to as long as two years.
At CUNY, incubator participants do a significant amount of what Rooney calls “low bono” work. They earn $75 an hour for providing legal representation to underserved communities throughout New York, paid for by contracts with New York City. The work provides the new attorneys with experience and exposure, and provides representation to people who otherwise could not afford an attorney, Rooney said. Incubator attorneys take on their own cases in addition to the contract work.
The University of Maryland’s solo incubator, which lasts between six and 10 months, also promotes civil justice. Participants work in an office across the street from the law school and assist on grant-funded cases through Civil Justice Inc., a nonprofit law office that serves low-income clients. The seven graduates who started in the program in 2011 had the chance to earn fees while working on foreclosure prevention cases, Morris said.
“Our goal is to provide a vehicle for students who are considering going solo or into small-firm practice,” Morris said. “There are certain skills you need to be a successful solo practitioner. We want to teach them the practical skills they don’t necessarily get in the classroom.”
The University of Missouri-Kansas City’s solo incubator runs out of two adjacent storefront offices on the edge of campus, abutting a low-income neighborhood. It has room for eight attorneys, but is starting slowly, with five tenants. When the program is fully ramped up, the school will have retired judges rotate through the office to serve as mentors to its participants, said Dean Ellen Suni. The incubator is an outgrowth of the school’s entrepreneurial lawyering course, in which students develop business plans and attend the state bar’s annual solo and small-firm conference.
Stephanie Burton, who graduated from the law school in December, never planned on going solo. But the former parole officer and mother of four found no luck in the job market.
“I had two choices,” she said. “I could sit in my house and cry about it. Or I could pull myself up by my bootstraps and start my own practice. I was terrified about starting a firm, but it was necessary in order to make a living.”
Burton was accepted into the law school’s solo incubator. She dusted off the 30-page business plan she had written for the entrepreneurial lawyering course, only to have her two assigned mentors rip it to shreds as unrealistic. She adjusted her expectations and business plan, developed a marketing strategy and now handles mostly traffic and other municipal violations, although she hopes to take on criminal cases.
Her practice isn’t particularly lucrative yet, Burton said, but she hopes that will change as she establishes herself.
Patel, who works in CUNY’s incubator, is still trying to adjust to the financial uncertainty of being a solo practitioner. June and July were slow months, with no new clients, and he began to worry about paying the bills.
“I was absolutely freaking out,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, August was extremely busy. It’s very different from knowing you have a steady paycheck every month.”
Patel, who wants to focus on immigration law, is already plotting his next move after his 18-month residency ends next year. He and two other attorneys in the incubator are examining starting their own small firm, and are tracking their income and expenses to determine whether the idea is realistic.
“With the incubator, I’ve been able to focus on establishing a track record rather than focus too much on money,” he said. “I was a little afraid to take the leap on my own, but it really was a no-brainer after hearing about the incubator.”
Karen Sloan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.