MacArthur Foundation Grant Recognizes Great Potential of Justice Entrepreneurs Project

May 19, 2015

CBF Report April/May 2015

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New grant will support innovative solutions for making essential legal help more affordable and accessible 

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently awarded the CBF’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP) a two-year, $400,000 grant. The JEP is an incubator for newer lawyers to start innovative, socially conscious law practices in the Chicago area that provide affordable services to low and moderate income people, a vastly underserved client base. JEP lawyers build sustainable and flexible practices by leveraging technology, offering fixed fees and a la carte services, and maximizing collaboration with clients.

For too many low and moderate income people in our communities, legal services are not realistically accessible or affordable in times of need, said MacArthur Program Officer Jeff Ubois. The partners and supporters the Chicago Bar Foundation has brought together and the early successes of the lawyers in the JEP program offer great potential to develop replicable, market-based models that can help to address more fully this gap in Chicago and across the country.

The JEP already is making an impact in meeting real community needs and establishing promising new models.
The JEP borrows principles from successful incubators in the business and technology fields, such as using a competitive selection process and creating a collaborative network among the participants and program partners. The 18-month program provides training, resources, and support to participants in a shared, cost-effective office setting. A strong pro bono service component places participants at partner legal aid organizations, providing much-needed legal services for people in need while also providing JEP lawyers with vital experience and mentoring. The program also leverages existing but previously untapped referral networks.

The JEP is a cutting-edge response to a growing and very troublesome failure of the consumer market for legal services, said Terri Mascherin, a partner at Jenner & Block LLP and Chair of the JEP Steering Committee. It marries proven principles from the business and tech startup fields with the latest innovations in legal practice to develop sustainable new models for delivering affordable legal services to low and moderate income people in need.

The CBF contributed more than $250,000 in seed funding along with substantial staffing support to launch the JEP. An impressive array of partner organizations also make the program possible through pro bono and in-kind support worth hundreds of thousands more. Highlights of that in-kind support include the latest law practice management technology, individualized business development coaching from one of the premier consulting firms in that field, and a series of trainings from some of the top experts in the legal field.

The grant was awarded through MacArthur’s Discovery Grants program, which funds exceptionally creative or innovative projects with high potential impact, but which do not fit into the Foundation’s existing programs and strategies.

Thanks to a diverse network of topnotch partners and the dedicated and entrepreneurial participating lawyers, the JEP already is making an impact in meeting real community needs and establishing promising new models, said Jesse Ruiz, a Partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and President of the CBF Board of Directors. The grant from MacArthur will enable the CBF to complete the critical pilot phase of the program over the next two years, maximizing the impact and replicability of the JEP’s successful practice models throughout the country, while setting the program on the path to long-term sustainability here in Chicago.

More information about the CBF’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project can be found at chicagobarfoundation.org/jep.