By Professor Steve Semeraro
The majority of lawyers work in law firms of 5 attorneys or less. Historically, almost half of all attorneys in private practice have been solo practitioners. Yet, most law schools do little to prepare lawyers to open their own practices. Even those schools with strong skills training and clinical programs often fail to prepare their students in the ethical, business, and entrepreneurial aspects of opening a law office. Thomas Jefferson School of Law has set out to change that by adopting a special solo practice track in its curriculum and a lawyer incubator program for its recent graduates who want to be solo practitioners. Both programs will debut in the fall of 2012.
The solo practice track will be a full year sequence of mini-courses in which students will learn core lawyering skills, such as how to draft a fee agreement, and critical business skills like how to attract clients. The fall semester will focus on general skills necessary for all solo practitioners from client interviewing to building a website to obtaining malpractice insurance. The spring semester will then focus on discrete areas that solo practitioners often pursue, including criminal law, bankruptcy, employment, and family law.
The legal incubator concept has been pursued at other law schools, most successfully at CUNY. The idea is that recent graduates interested in solo practice can work in a supportive environment with a direct pipeline to more experienced lawyers who can serve as mentors. Fred Rooney, who set up CUNY’s incubator and is the director of the Community Legal Resource Networks, explains its goals as follows. “First, like all business incubators, ours aims to assist our graduates to develop successful businesses in our case, small solo practices. Second, we help our graduates become successful social entrepreneurs who contribute to improving access to justice while enabling them to make a living. The law school provides a low cost working environment, training, and mentoring, and in exchange, the new lawyers commit to give back to the community through pro-bono and low-bono work for underserved clients. Over the course of about a year, incubator lawyers build confidence along with their client base and leave the incubator. Hopefully, they take with them both the business acumen to run a successful practice and a sense of social responsibility that will encourage them to continue to serve their community.”
Rooney spent a couple of weeks working with TJSL faculty and staff, advising them on the development of TJSL’s incubator program.
Today’s legal market is in flux. Fewer law school graduates are finding jobs in established firms. Yet, vast segments of the population have legal needs that are unmet. A new generation of solo practitioners trained in both law and business development may develop more efficient ways to deliver legal services so that solo practicing lawyers can earn a good living while better serving society’s needs for legal services than lawyers have in the past.
Thomas Jefferson School of Law is hopeful that the combination of the solo practice track and the incubator will, as Rooney describes it, enable its graduates to “Do well while doing good.”