MBA teams with innovative legal incubator on workshop

Issue March/April 2016 By Joe Kourieh

Three law schools in Boston have partnered to create a new legal incubator project in an effort to foster professional skills in a group of new lawyers while simultaneously expanding legal services to a section of the population that could not otherwise afford them.

The program, Lawyers for Affordable Justice (LAJ), was first conceived in the fall 2014, when Boston University School of Law, Boston College Law School and Northeastern University School of Law were contacted by organizers from a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth-based incubator, which would come to be known as Justice Bridge. Though the three law schools declined to participate, the seeds had been sown for a similar project of their own. By the beginning of the current semester and with funding from the schools, as well as an American Bar Association Catalyst Grant, LAJ was up and running, with law professors Robert Burdick, Paul Tremblay and James Rowan, of BU Law, BC Law and Northeastern Law, respectively, at the helm.

The Massachusetts Bar Association's Law Practice Management Section teamed up with LAJ to offer a free practical workshop on business planning. The workshop guided attendees through the business planning process and provided a basic outline and understanding of how to develop a more detailed plan. Practice management matters, such as marketing, finances and law firm operations, were also covered.

"They're huge opportunities," Susan Letterman White, vice chair of the MBA's LPM section, said of the incubators. "They're important because they have the potential to be mutually beneficial to graduating lawyers who are either forced to or by choice want to start a business of their own, and to the corresponding group of people who might not otherwise have access to a lawyer."

Incubators, of which there are more than 100 nationwide, essentially act as all-purpose guides for law school graduates getting started in the professional world, offering participants a litany of resources to bolster their own solo practices.

The LAJ participants (of which there are a maximum of 12 per year) receive mentoring from a team of four experienced advisors in the industry, in-depth training and a shared workspace on Beacon Street, complete with supplies and equipment necessary to carry out the day-to-day administrative tasks that keep a law firm functioning.

"The resources that LAJ provides are invaluable," said LAJ participant Michelle E. Lewis, a Northeastern graduate who operates the Law Office of Michelle E. Lewis with the help of the program. "I knew I wanted to start a practice, but I did not know how to execute my ideas so that I could effectively serve those in need of legal services while building a sustainable business."

A rise in popularity

Though the concept has existed since the late 1990s, incubators rose to prominence in the legal community around 2008, when jobs in the field began to thin out. With years of fine-tuning, the programs have found their own niche in an aging industry.

"When the idea of incubators gained momentum, it was for people who couldn't get positions," said Sofia Lingos of Lingos Law in Boston, who acts as LAJ's business law advisor. "But it's so much more than that. It's to reeducate a generation of attorneys to find this client base that will help them become successful, using innovative legal practices."

These innovative practices include utilizing technology, as well as clearing up billing structures and educating the community in order to find the ideal client base for the startup practices.

Northeastern class of 2009 graduate and LAJ participant Chase C. Liu, who operates Liu Law & Consulting, said that, on top of a "deep and extensive level of substantive legal expertise," participants also are provided with state-of-the-art legal software that would be "prohibitively expensive" for a solo firm on its own. Because of this, he said, the program helps to significantly reduce overhead for the business -- savings that the attorneys can then pass onto their clients, reducing fees to an average of about 75 percent of market rate.

This is especially important since LAJ's target client base includes members of a tricky slice of the socio-economic ladder -- those whose incomes do not qualify them for free legal services, but is also not sufficient to afford typical fees from a professional attorney.

"Legal costs are an issue," said Damian Turco, chair of the MBA's LPM section, who described a "hierarchy" among attorneys that has resulted in the current standard rates. "Ideally we have a society where everybody who wants or needs legal services can get them. The incubators appear to be an innovative approach to bridging the gap that exists there," he said.

Turco added that, although they will create more competition among startups, the rise of incubators will not shake the legal hierarchy all that much, since they target a section of the market that well-established attorneys at the top do not touch.

"We already have a model where you tend to give more money to the better lawyers," he said. "There will always be demand for the best lawyers. But these programs open up a whole new market."

Something special

LAJ identified four specialty areas common to the target market and assigned one advisor to each: small businesses, advised by Lingos; landlord/tenant disputes, advised by Burdick; immigration law, advised by Sarah Schendel; and employment law, advised by Natacha Thomas.

"Different solos have identified an interest in working one of these four specialties, but nothing prevents them from working in all of them -- figuring out what makes the most sense, what they like and what they can earn a fee doing," Burdick said.

Some participants have already begun to apply LAJ's principles to their own legal interests, such as Hanford Y. Chiu of Night & Day Law Firm, who is on the board of a charitable organization.

"When I was back in law school working for a nonprofit legal aid clinic, there were often cases where the work load was too high to take on new cases or that the potential clients had closely missed the financial eligibility guidelines," he said. "Incubator programs like LAJ could provide overflow support for these nonprofit legal aid clinics by offering a referral source of affordable legal services to those that these clinics cannot serve."

Program participant Michael Denham, a 2015 BU Law graduate, said, "Incubator programs can have a massive impact on the legal field, especially as the practice of law is becoming more and more specialized. … Many lawyers aren't thrilled with the traditional model, but staking your own claim and going it alone is scary enough to dissuade some of even the most veteran attorneys."

He added: "If the incubator model proves successful, I think you could see a decentralization of the legal field that will ultimately benefit attorneys and clients alike."

Joe Kourieh is an associate editor at The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Journal.