Hatching an Incubator

CBF Report November 2013

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CBF Justice Entrepreneurs Project Will Launch Start-up Solo and Small Firms to Expand Access to Affordable Legal Help

By Terri Mascherin  |  Chair, Steering Committee for CBF Justice Entrepreneurs Project

Earlier this month the Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP) officially opened its doors in the West Loop, creating a program where at any given time 30 socially conscious and sustainable solo and small firm law practices will have the opportunity to grow and thrive.With this new collaborative office space, the CBF officially launches its incubator to help newer graduates develop practices that will serve a sizeable gap in our legal market€“clients who earn too much to qualify for free legal aid but not enough to pay traditional lawyer rates. The inaugural group of 10 talented, entrepreneurial newer lawyers started in June and is nearing the end of the first segment of an 18-month program, having collectively contributed nearly 5,000 hours of pro bono service. Already, they are forging connections with one another and the larger legal community while developing and expanding innovative law practices designed to meet real community needs.

As the inaugural group of Justice Entrepreneurs moves into the second phase and focuses on building their practices, they are more experienced, better networked and well-positioned to thrive in the new collaborative space. The second group of 10 attorneys is beginning the pro bono phase, welcomed by the existing entrepreneurs and the legal aid organizations with whom they will partner for their pro bono service. By next summer, the program will be at full capacity, with 30 participating lawyers all working toward a common goal for their own practices €“ sustainable, successful practices that serve low and moderate income people in our community.

The official launch of the JEP offers an opportunity to reflect on the many great people and organizations that took the program from a good idea to a reality. As I started my term as President of the CBA three years ago, I had a bird’s-eye view of two dramatic changes facing our profession: many more talented and entrepreneurial attorneys seeking nontraditional paths into the profession, and a massive increase in litigants handling often complex legal matters on their own because they could not access free legal help but could not afford to pay a lawyer. At the same time, an increasing number of new attorneys looked to gain experience and skills through pro bono service, offering welcome help but also challenging overstretched legal aid organizations to train and support large numbers of pro bono volunteers who were just starting out in practice. Working with the CBF and its dedicated staff, we determined we would find a way to connect these lawyers with the clients who need them.

For two years, a committed Steering Committee (see sidebar) studied many possibilities, synthesized information and developed a business plan for the JEP with key assistance from the CBF staff, who provided significant time and expertise from the start. The Steering Committee members were just the first wave of extraordinary talent that would contribute to the project. JEP would never have become reality without the thoughtful contributions of that group, the many others who donated their time and talents through a number of working groups to tackle specific issues, and monumental pro bono assistance and in-kind contributions from the CBA and from a number of partners throughout the community.

[spoiler title=”JEP IN A NUTSHELL” style=”fancy” icon=”chevron”]The CBF’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP) is an 18-month incubator program. It provides training, resources and support to help newer law graduates establish successful solo and small firm law practices that meet community need. JEP participants are chosen through a competitive selection process.We seek to identify talented, public interest-minded and entrepreneurial lawyers who want to build innovative practices that break the mold to provide cost-effective service. The JEP participants are committed to serving the community by building more efficient and flexible practices that provide quality legal service to low and moderate income clients.

For the first six months of the program, participants provide pro bono service through placements with legal aid organizations for 20 hours per week, gaining valuable experience and connections in the legal community. At the same time, the JEP provides regular training to help themestablish, develop and grow their practices. As these entrepreneurs move through the program and prepare to take their practices into the community, the training focuses on business development, new fee models and how to leverage technology to provide more cost-effective service. The CBF brings Chicago’s legal community together to support the JEP program, partnering with lawyers and organizations who provide significant pro bono and in-kind donations valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, and connecting the participants to a vast network of experience and expertise. [/spoiler]

With the concept firmly in place, the CBF contributed seed funding made possible by several cy pres awards the CBF received in recent years. We hired Taylor Hammond as the Director for the new program, and JEP secured a dedicated space in the West Loop, modeled after other successful incubators in the business and technology sectors.

The program is still in its early stages, but shows great potential to create sustainable and market-based models for serving a large segment of our community who too often have not had access to affordable legal assistance. JEP does that by building on lessons from other successful business incubators and utilizing new practice models. The talented and diverse entrepreneurs reflect the professionalism and dedication to innovation that our profession needs to meet changing community needs.

The JEP is just one of many innovative programs that the CBA and CBF have been instrumental in launching in recent years€“thanks to the strong support of the CBF’s many dedicated donors. For more information on the program, check out the CBF web site at www.chicagobarfoundation.org/jep or call JEP Director Taylor Hammond at 312/546-9939.