The ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services (the Commission) was formed in August 2014 with the purpose of improving the delivery of, and access to, legal services in the United States. A final report was released two years later following extensive research including public hearings, webinars, live events and a national summit. The commission presented three main findings: “(A) despite sustained efforts to expand the public’s access to legal services, significant unmet needs persist; (B) advancements in technology and other innovations continue to change how legal services can be accessed and delivered; and (C) public trust and confidence in obtaining justice and in accessing legal services is compromised by bias, discrimination, complexity, and lack of resources.” American Bar Association, Commission on the Future of Legal Services, Report on the Future of Legal Services, 2016. The Commission also provided 12 recommendations to address these overarching concerns. A subset of the findings highlighted innovative law school curriculum and legal incubators as an entry point to introduce these ideals.
The term incubator was coined in 1956 by Joseph Mancuso, who turned the failing Massey-Ferguson building into a home to launch and grow small businesses. One such tenant was a chicken hatchery, and he compared the space to “incubating” businesses the way the hatchery incubated chicken eggs. Since then, incubators around the world have housed and helped build businesses in every field. Legal incubators are relatively new to the scene. Fred Rooney created the first legal incubator in 2007, the Community Legal Resource Network at the City University of New York School of Law. Its mission is to provide support to their graduates interested in launching their own practice to serve low-income communities that lack access to legal representations. Since then, more than 60 legal incubators are up and running, with 75% of them having been formed since 2014. American Bar Association, ABA Standing Commission on the Delivery of Legal Services, 2016 Comprehensive Survey of Lawyer Incubators, 2016. Though their missions vary, the majority of incubators embrace the importance of innovation and technology in the legal field and focus on the delivery of legal services to the un- and under-represented.
Incubators have numerous responsibilities. It begins with fostering the lawyers, working with them to understand and cultivate the services they wish to provide. Once their niche has been established, they perform market research to determine how to best reach the underserved population. The delivery of services is two-fold: (1) assisting the community in identifying legal needs, and (2) creating legal packages that are affordable, understandable, and accessible. The end goal is to assist attorney is establishing successful and sustainable practices.
It is our responsibility as representatives of this profession to close the justice gap and ensure access for all. Our current system is broken. The Legal Services Corporation, which is the largest single funder of legal aid for low-income Americans, is significantly underfunded, and qualifying individuals must be below 125% of the federal poverty level to receive services. This leads to the Access to Justice J-Curve as described by Herbert M. Kritzer in his article “Access to Justice for the Middle Class.” There are some options for our lowest-income individuals, and those with a high net worth have access to capital, hence counselors, but everyone in between, the majority of Americans, go unrepresented. This challenge is also an opportunity. We have lawyers looking for work and potential clients who need lawyers.
The federal government, made up of three branches: the legislative, executive and judicial, runs on a system of checks and balances. Without access to the judicial branch, this system is inherently flawed and fails. Incubators cannot solve this crisis independently; however, more experienced practitioners and established firms present a bigger hurdle than reaching attorneys earlier in their career. Incubators have an opportunity to create a new generation of service providers who embrace access and innovation.
Innovation & Technology
Incubators are an excellent trial ground for legal technology. Programs have secured complimentary licenses to numerous products for use by participants, and a big focus of their continuing legal education is on innovation and technology. Incubator attorneys have the opportunity to explore innovative means to deliver legal services in a controlled environment. Developing law firms with support and guidance, as opposed to the “hang a shingle” alone approach, allows for the creation of sustainable practices. The implementation of technological tools is essential to create the successful small firms of the future. Automating intakes, implementing e-discovery, utilizing special software, building online legal resource centers, and so many more disruptive processes are in the pipeline to improve our delivery of legal services. With the majority of programs still in their infancy, we have yet to see many of these firms leave the nest and operate independently, but with new classes graduating from more than 60 programs across the nation annually, it is easy to see how this can lead to a significant shift in our field.
Though much of the rapid growth in the incubator movement is attributed to the recent graduate’s placement challenges, the result has opened opportunities for new attorneys to gain experience and build responsive practices to assist unmet needs in their areas of interest. Many people assume that access to justice is only specific to a few fields like family law, where the majority of litigants operate pro se, leading to the backlog of cases. However, small businesses need counsel to assist with licensing and liability protection; tenants need assistance in protecting their rights; and employees need help identifying issues. No matter the area of interest, there is an access to justice opportunity. Some incubators have performed market research and focus on the practice areas where there is the most need, hence greatest opportunity, but a common goal is to assist attorneys in creating passion projects that will lead to happy, satisfied and successful lawyers.
Lawyers are misunderstood professionals. I call this the Law & Order versus Suits dichotomy. We’ve caught a bad rap. Mainstream media represents that lawyers are only available to (alleged) criminals and to the wealthy; that one must take an elevator to the top floor of a downtown Class A in one’s best attire to convince an overeducated individual to consider one’s case. Of course, within the profession we know that this is a gross misrepresentation, but we’ve done a poor job educating consumers that other options are available. Incubators are working to reframe the perception of legal service providers. Accessible legal services do not solely pertain to prices, but extend to the individuals providing them. Most incubators embrace the idea of community lawyering. We bring the services to you (sometimes literally, in other ways figuratively).
An important aspect of community lawyering is assisting non-lawyers in the identification of legal issues. As law students, we spent three whole years in formal education perfecting issue spotting. If potential clients are unaware that they even have a legal issue, then you’ve just lost a potential client. Many incubators are hosting community meetings and presenting to groups on hot topics, creating online content and other innovative educational resources to assist potential clients in learning more about their rights or an issue they or a family member/ friend may have. Using thoughtful language instead of speaking in Latin, posting through social media and creating digestible content are some of the many ways incubator participants are collaborating with their colleagues to create shared message for the non-lawyer.
The issues presented by the Commission require movement at every level of our profession. Incubators are but one response to the legal crisis. Programs will continue to expand and graduates will increase. Research and reporting is only of value if it results in action. Incubator participants (and programmers) are bravely working to be initiators of this change. Whether you have the opportunity to participate or support the work being done, in the end, everyone will benefit.
About the Author
Sofia S. Lingos is the managing attorney at Trident Legal LLC, a Boston law practice for small businesses and start-ups. She is also the business law advisor at Lawyers for Affordable Justice, a collaborative legal incubator, an adjunct law professor at Northeastern University School of Law, and an active member of the ABA Law Practice Management Division.