According to a 2012 report from the ABA, approximately 70% of lawyers in the U.S. in private practice are in solo or small firm settings (including one lawyer to 10 in a firm). While we know the number of jobs in large firms, government and corporate law office settings has decreased, we also know that we have a serious access to justice gap. It is not that we have too many lawyers it is that we are not thinking about how to educate law students in a manner that will enable them from a value proposition and training standpoint to be community-based solo and small firm lawyers if they so desire. Very few would disagree that upon graduation from law school and licensure following shortly thereafter, that the vast majority of new lawyers are not best prepared to hang out their own shingle and practice law. This may be an economic necessity for some, and yet well-planned and supported, it could present an opportunity for community-based legal services that could assist in helping to shrink the justice gap. There have been many creative programs designed to address post-JD employment challenges such as Lawyers for America founded by UC Hastings School of Law and Legal Corps at Miami School of Law, and programs designed in this vein to also help underserved populations such as those who reside in rural areas.
There is an oft quoted phrase from Maimonides, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” So, how should law schools respond and teach students to fish in the new normal? One of the most intriguing movements to accomplish this while instilling an access to justice ethic is the law school-based incubator program. Through this effort, about three dozen law schools are providing curricular and/or shared office space arrangements for graduates to learn how to start, manage and build a law practice. The second annual conference on Enhancing Social Justice Through the Development of Incubator and Residency Programs is scheduled for later this month at Cal Western Law School. The first conference was hosted at Touro Law Center. The ABA is tracking the latest news on law school incubators. There are many related developments addressing infusion of more business related courses in law school and blogs and virtual mentoring and advice for those starting their own practice. The business of law practice, well beyond the traditional law office economics course, is quickly becoming an important part of the law school curriculum. As the law-school based/supported incubators begin to sprout new law firms (and, by the way, some of the incubators are supported by bar associations such as the Chicago Bar), it will be important to conduct a longitudinal study that benchmarks and assesses both new lawyer preparedness to be successful in this space and the impact of such efforts on access to justice.