The office is clean and furnished with a desk and chairs. The bills for the electricity and Internet connection have been paid. The administrative staff is ready, a mentor to help talk things through is available, and there are even some cases and clients already waiting for a lawyer.
The only thing missing is a recent law school graduate.
Two legal organizations are partnering with Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law to create an incubator – a program that provides the infrastructure and overhead to allow a newly admitted lawyer to focus on establishing a solo practice.
The Indiana State Bar Association Professional Legal Education, Admission and Development Section came up with the idea for the incubator as a way to help new lawyers in a tough job market. It then reached out to Indianapolis Legal Aid Society, which offered its office space and equipment.
In exchange for the support, the law graduate will devote some time to handling pro bono cases from the legal aid society.
“We’re ready to go,” said John Floreancig, general counsel for ILAS. “Basically we just have to find a qualified candidate. In that regard, we’re relying on IU McKinney.”
The first participant could be coming soon, according to Chasity Thompson, IU McKinney assistant dean in the Office of Professional Development. Currently, the school is looking at applicants and hopes to tap someone in the “very near future.”
“I think this is going to be a great opportunity,” she said.
Incubators have been around for more than 10 years, but with the downturn in the economy, law schools and bar associations across the country have been creating these launch pads to give graduates a foothold in the legal profession, according to the American Bar Association.
The program being developed in Indianapolis is believed to be the first in the state. IU McKinney is referring to the program as a fellowship, but it is functioning as an incubator.
Former chair of PLEADS, Ted Waggoner, approached law schools around the state with the state bar’s idea of partnering in an incubator. In some law schools, the idea did not fit with the curriculum, he said.
IU McKinney was able to incorporate the program because of its location in a larger market coupled with the resources of the legal aid society. The stars aligned, Waggoner said, and everything fell easily into place.
“I think it has great potential,” Waggoner added, noting the program is a nice addition to what the ISBA is offering all its members. “It will help the student who takes advantage of it.”
Resources and materials already on hand are being pooled to create the incubator. At this point, no extra funding is being directed to support the incubator or to provide any compensation to the new lawyer.
In addition to a free membership and access to the online research tool Casemaker, the state bar will be pairing the incubator fellow with an experienced
attorney in the mentor match program. The graduate will also receive free continuing legal education classes from the ISBA as well as from IU McKinney.
The space has been ready since the beginning of 2015. Why no newly admitted lawyer has yet opted to take the incubator spot is a good question, Waggoner
said. He suspected perhaps “the right people didn’t see the memo” and maybe recent graduates need time to get comfortable with the idea that instead of walking into a job at a big law firm, they have to create their own opportunities.
“We just want to make sure we have the right person and a good fit,” Thompson said.
Individuals interested in participating in the program must have passed the bar so they can practice law. Candidates are also required to submit a business plan detailing how he or she will establish a law practice.
Developing a plan will ensure the recent graduate has been thoughtful in considering his or her ideas and intentions for starting a solo practice, Thompson said. Once the individual starts the incubator program, a mentor will revisit the business plan with the participant to make adjustments and rethink the course of action as needed.
“We want to help those interested in establishing their own practice by equipping them with the tools to help them be successful,” she said, noting the participants are going to provide the entrepreneurial aspect.
Floreancig is especially excited about having another attorney available to help with the pro bono work flowing into ILAS. He recalled during the height of the economic recession he was not able to respond to all the inquiries he received from recent law school graduates looking for jobs.
During the early days in the incubator, the new lawyer will work up to 20 hours per week on pro bono cases in addition to working on establishing his or her practice. That pro bono commitment will dial back as the fellowship nears the end of its year-long course.
The pro bono cases, Floreancig said, will enable the incubator participant to get immediate hands-on legal experience in a variety of areas. Plus, the ILAS attorneys will be nearby to offer advice or assistance.
He is eager to get the program started and is hopeful an attorney will be in place by early summer.
Participants in the program will be expected to be their own rainmaker and find the clients and the work to sustain a practice once they leave the incubator.
Along with gaining the experience to handle cases, the future solo practitioner should have the competency to run a business, advised Derrick Wilson, chair of the ISBA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section, and Keith Hancock, vice chair of the Solo Practitioner/Small Firm Practice Section of the Indianapolis Bar Association.
Attorneys in solo or small firms have to understand traditional business functions like how to solicit clients, pay for rent, manage insurance and malpractice coverage, send out invoices, and withhold employment taxes.
During the nearly two years that Hancock was a solo practitioner, he spent half his time chasing clients to get the money they owed him, and he quickly realized the importance of connecting with a referral service and of advertising.
Both Hancock and Wilson noted the solo practitioner or small firm attorney has the opportunity to work with many clients and still be their own boss.
“I did enjoy it,” Hancock said of his solo practice. “It was very stressful but very rewarding.”
The incubator idea came in reaction to the struggles law school graduates have had in recent years in finding employment. But, Waggoner said, the program is intended for a new attorney who has a specific interest to start a solo practice. It is not designed to be a fill-in job until the graduate gets hired elsewhere, he said.
IU McKinney Dean Andrew Klein envisions the incubator program could grow beyond Indianapolis. He pointed to areas of the state that are underserved and noted the potential of establishing similar partnerships with other organizations to provide legal services.
Waggoner also sees the program expanding. At some point, the incubator could handle up to three or four new attorneys from other law schools.•