There is nothing like being around new lawyers excited about doing good and about being able to make a living at it. That was the vibe at the November 15 Open House for the dedicated West Loop office space for the Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP).
Desperate times in the legal profession call for creative solutions, and the Chicago Bar Foundation has pulled together an innovative incubator program that addresses two seemingly incongruent problems: an overabundance of new attorneys and an increasing number of low and modest income people who need legal services but make too much money to access free legal services and too little to pay traditional hourly fees. The JEP incubator provides newer entrepreneurial-minded attorneys with the training, resources and other support to build law practices providing quality legal services to low and moderate income clients. This is a win for the lawyers, a win for clients whose legal needs have gone unfulfilled due to a lack of resources, a win for our communities and a win for the legal profession.
Directing the development of the JEP for over two years has been a Steering Committee chaired by Terri Mascherin of Jenner & Block and comprised of individuals from private practice, legal aid organizations, law schools and consultants who bring unique and diverse perspectives to the venture. I have been privileged to be part of this Steering Committee, which studied the problems, the successes and challenges of other incubator programs across the nation, and eventually drafted the 18 month curriculum, a profile of the attributes of the successful lawyer candidates, hired an Executive Director, and now has officially launched dedicated space for the project.
This is how the 18-month program works. In the first six months, the group of ten lawyers is assigned to a legal aid organization where they work for 20 hours per week, gaining valuable legal experience and making connections in the legal community. The other 20 hours per week, they receive structured training from volunteer attorneys. The West Loop space has a large conference room for formal educational programs and an open office space, providing plenty of informal chances for the entrepreneurs to compare notes and receive peer support. During the second and third phases, the lawyers will have developed a business plan and will receive increasingly targeted training and support. The idea is that at the end of the 18 months, the lawyers will have built a cost-effective sustainable practice while serving a population that finds it difficult, if not impossible, to pay traditional legal fees.
The inaugural group of 10 entrepreneurs has entered Phase II, having together contributed almost 5,000 hours of pro bono service. The second group of 10 has begun the pro bono phase. I am incredibly impressed by the background of these new lawyers and their infectious commitment to using their legal skills to provide access to underserved segments of society. At full capacity, the program will have thirty participants, ten in each of the three phases. Of course, the graduates will have each other and the entrepreneurs graduating behind them for an on-going source of support, inspiration, and innovation.
Although the program is in its early stages, the momentum and optimism was palpable at the Open House in the office space. The entrepreneurs have learned to “think like a lawyer” in a new way—one that promises to build sustainable and replicable models that will provide greater professional reward for lawyers and expand access to justice in our communities. Kudos to Bob Glaves and the staff of the Chicago Bar Foundation for their leadership and ground-work in bringing the project to life!
For more information about the Justice Entrepreneurs Project, contact Director Taylor Hammond at (312) 546-9939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.