Around this time last year, Sarah Hollender, a class of 2012 Pace Law School graduate, was weighing three job offers: one with a small firm, one with a corporation and one from the Pace Community Law Practice, a new nonprofit law firm run by the school.
Believing Pace would offer her the most practical legal experience, Hollender became one of four fellows in a one-year "legal residency" program for newly minted J.D.s that is modeled after residencies for medical students.
Courtesy of Pace Law School
The staff of the Pace Community Law Practice: clockwise, from left, fellows Sara Morton, Shari Hochberg and Craig Relles, supervising attorney Karin Anderson Ponzer, executive director Jennifer Friedman, fellow Sarah Hollender, and program administrator Nova Lucero.
About a dozen law schools nationwide have set up nonprofit firms for graduates in recent years, seeking to solve twin problems of a lawyer surplus and the inability of many Americans to afford legal representation. Participants, typically recent graduates, are supervised by practicing attorneys.
The first such program, City University of New York School of Law’s "incubator for justice," has trained about eight lawyers at a time in 18-month stints since its 2007 launch in the basics of running a law firm business. Since then, "teaching law firms" have opened on campuses of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and elsewhere.
School-run firms provide recent graduates with additional lawyering skills at a time when, for economic reasons, large law firms and public service organizations are cutting back on long-running programs that trained new hires fresh out of law school.
"I wanted to be part of the program’s mission of helping meet the need for affordable legal services while building my own practical skills, and this was really the only place I could do both," Hollender said of Pace Law’s firm.
Pace Law fellows represent Westchester County and lower Hudson Valley clients in areas such as immigration, family and housing law. Working out of a standalone law office on the school’s White Plains campus, they take cases under the supervision of immigration lawyer Karin Anderson Ponzer, the firm’s assistant director.
In addition, fellows take seminars on building their client bases, maintaining case files, billing, malpractice insurance and setting up their own law office. The idea, Hollender said, is to finish the program ready to hang one’s own shingle.
"We’re learning everything from how to organize an outreach event to giving clients two business cards so they can give one to their friends," Hollender said.
At an April 4 event celebrating the program’s successful first seven months, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman called Pace a "leader and model" to law schools around the country.
"Pace’s work supports these individuals by giving them the business management skills they need to start their own practice while helping to fill the justice gap and fulfill the needs of the low-income community," Lippman said.
The Pace Community Law Firm calls its payment structure "low bono." Clients are charged for services on a sliding scale based on their income and ability to pay.
Support from Pace University and grants from private donors cover most of the firm’s operating costs and each fellow’s salary, which is paid by the school.
Fellows are paid on a scale similar to public interest jobs in New York, plus full benefits, said the firm’s executive director Jennifer Friedman, who is also the founding director of the school’s Public Interest Law Center.
"We have a hybrid system," Friedman said. "We use some of the income from legal fees to offset our costs but we’re able to charge significantly below market rates for comparable legal services in Westchester County."
Pace’s firm has helped about 250 people so far. Of those, about 100 have the fellows on retainer. Most clients are seeking legal immigration status through programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which began accepting applications last August just before the firm opened. That gave Pace a niche area specialization that other free legal services groups in the area cannot provide: because the firm is not backed by federal grants, it is not barred from serving people with illegal immigration status. Federally funded groups cannot serve those clients.
The Pace program is different from CUNY Law in that Pace’s fellows are just out of law school, and CUNY tends to attract lawyers with a few years of experience who are looking to transition into small-group or solo practices. The CUNY participants aren’t paid by the school; rather, each lawyer is his or her own business and pays rent of about $500 a month for a desk in the firm’s midtown Manhattan law office, access to the school’s resources, and 18 months of training on business issues. CUNY participants also must submit a business plan for admission to the program.
Pace fellows are not yet licensed to practice and don’t yet have their own malpractice insurance. Ponzer, the firm’s supervising attorney, is the counsel of record, though fellows meet with clients, draft documents and appear in court.
Come this fall, Pace Law fellows will have the option to stay on a second year. Though they will not be paid, they will still have access to the office space, attorney supervisors and assistance of law student interns. The firm is now interviewing candidates for its second class of fellows.
After their year at the Pace firm, the four inaugural fellows, all of whom are interested in public service, will be more competitive in positions where potential employers don’t have resources to train inexperienced hires, Friedman said.
"Especially within the public sector, the job market is very difficult," Friedman said. "So this training is particularly beneficial since they want to enter this field."
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