Incubator enables starts-ups targeted at those priced out of legal services

Chicago: justice gap

An incubator that helps recently qualified lawyers start ‘socially conscious’ law firms so as to expand legal services to people with low and moderate incomes, and innovate in how they are provided, was launched last week in the US.

The Justice Entrepreneurs Project is the brainchild of the Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF), the charitable arm of the city’s bar association, and is an 18-month programme that takes in 10 lawyers every six months to help them build sustainable practices.

It was motivated by the ‘justice gap’ faced by those who earn too much to qualify for free legal advice but not enough to hire a lawyer at traditional market rates, along with what the CBF said is “a growing number of talented new lawyers increasingly looking for non-traditional paths into the legal profession. These lawyers are technologically savvy, they welcome innovation, and they understand the need to reinvent the traditional law practice”.

Terri Mascherin, chair of the project’s steering committee, said: “These two circumstances presented the opportunity for a unique, innovative and elegant solution. We needed to find a way to connect these lawyers with the clients who need them.”

The first group of lawyers actually began in June, with the second wave joining the project earlier this month. They spend the first six months providing pro bono service through placements at local legal aid organisations, while receiving regular training to help them establish, develop and grow their practices. All the first 10 have now set up their firms.

In the later phases of the programme, participants will focus more on the business end of running a practice and have access to a client referral network through the CBF and its partner organisations.

Seed-funded by the CBF, the aim is for the project to become an independent organisation. The participants meet regularly and share office space. Free for the first six months, they pay $300 a month for the second six and $500 for the last six.

“Our vision is to create new models of law practice that can be replicated elsewhere,” said CBF executive director Bob Glaves. “This is not only about solving an immediate problem but about finding new, market-based solutions to deliver legal services to a group of people who too often are unable to obtain necessary legal assistance today.”

He said this will include leveraging technology, maximising collaboration with clients, and developing innovative fee structures and models of service, such as fixed fees and ‘a la carte’ legal solutions instead of the traditional billable hour.

There are a small number of other incubators in the US, but none are as large as the one in Chicago and almost all are run out of law schools.

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