Advocates for Starving Advocates

THE BRIDGE TO SOMEWHERE?

NORTHEASTERN’S JUSTICE BRIDGE AIMS TO SPAN THE EMPLOYMENT AND JUSTICE GAPS

We have two dire problems in the legal industry that would seem to add up to one obvious solution. Consider:

PROBLEM 1: THE JUSTICE GAP. This is an ever-growing trend of middle- and low-income consumers struggling to afford attorneys in a market where legal fees have grown out of their reach. This issue is particularly troublesome for people who make too much money to qualify for pro bono legal aid. As a result, pro se representation has skyrocketed in civil courts. In Massachusetts, for example, the Supreme Judicial Court recently cited stats showing that 75 percent of people who appear in the Family & Probate Court and in the Housing Court do so without an attorney.

• PROBLEM 2: THE EMPLOYMENT GAP: Only 54.9 percent of the JD Class of 2012 found full-time jobs in the legal field within nine months of graduation, continuing a trend that has effectively left the odds of full-time legal employment roughly equivalent to a coin flop for grads of ABA-accredited schools. Meanwhile, that 2012 class was apparently the largest law school class the ABA has on record. As has been documented on this blog (and pretty much everywhere else), firms have dramatically cut back on hiring junior associates, putting many newly minted JDs in the position to consider working in document mills or seeking safer harbors in other professions.

Clients who can’t find attorneys. Attorneys who can’t find clients. Sounds like we could pair off the lonely clients with the lonely attorneys and call it a day. Unfortunately, connecting these dots has proven a significant challenge for the motivated sector of the legal community trying to address these problems. The tricky part is providing fresh-out-of-school, barely licensed lawyers with the resources, mentoring and financial support necessary to help them develop into seasoned attorneys who can make a difference. To this point, it seems the best way to bring new lawyers together with the clients who need them is through legal incubator and residency programs.

Such programs, typically organized and funded by law schools and bar associations have become increasingly popular over the last year but the trend is effectively in its infancy.

If this trend catches on, it has the potential to deliver benefits to all sectors of the legal community. Law schools with dwindling application rates will be able to demonstrate a new pathway to practice: Specifically by training new attorneys to serve the underserved market stranded in the Justice Gap. Likewise, new attorneys will find new employment alternatives, clients of modest means will find a new source of legal aid. Even large firms will benefit, with such incubator and residency programs serving as a training ground for lawyers who aren’t getting such mentoring right now.

On the night of this post’s publication (June 4, 2013), the Northeastern University School of Law will demonstrate Justice Bridge to the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Access to Justice Section Council. The proposed incubator is called, “Justice Bridge: The Northeastern University School of Law’s Practice Incubator and Legal Access Center. Careful readers may have spotted a story about Justice Bridge in Mass. Lawyer’s Weekly back in April (subscription required).

Justice Bridge Brochure 6-2

As it happens, I’m a person with some first-hand knowledge of the Justice Bridge project because I’ve been working as a fellow to the project’s NUSL Faculty Liaison Deborah Ramirez and its presumptive Executive Director Len Zandrow since October of last year. Ramirez and Zandrow will give tonight’s presentation at the MBA (where they will distribute this Justice Bridge Brochure). I’m going to share some observations here, right now.

Modeled on some of the early adopters of the incubator/residency trend, such as this program at CUNY, Justice Bridge is aiming to take the model a step further by building a network that draws the legal community together. The program intends to draw on retired judges and attorneys and also currently active practitioners to help develop new lawyers working in the incubator. These incubator attorneys, who would likely be required to form their own small or solo firms will be trained in practice management (with program applicants required to submit business plans), augmenting a two-year curriculum in lawyering skills modeled on similar curricula employed by large firms. The idea is to produce attorneys who are ready for work in large firms, but could also run their own practices if they so choose.

As its building new lawyers by brining together various segments of the legal community, Justice Bridge also hopes to affiliate itself with community organizations to attract clients and syphon off the overload of cases that pro bono legal organizations can’t handle. Likewise, it would aim to identify certain fee-shifting cases and refer them to more experienced attorneys who might want to take them.

While there is an intriguing business model in place that would help the new attorneys earn income and Justice Bridge to become self-sufficient, I will leave that for interested parties to discover later on (in other words, I don’t know if I’m really allowed to talk about that right now). But suffice it to say, getting a program like this off the ground will depend on help not only from Northeastern but from other benefactors. So, generous law firms and partners, consider this when it comes time to offset taxes with charity: For a mere five-figure contribution, you can help develop new lawyers (i.e. future employees) while assisting struggling citizens to access justice. Sounds like wins all around.

If things go according to plan, Justice Bridge could become operational any day now (project overseer and NUSL Associate Dean of Experiential Education Luke Bierman said it would launch within a month in the Lawyers’ Weekly Article that was published on April 4, exactly two months ago). Anyway, let’s all give Luke Bierman a shoutout and tell him how excited we are about Justice Bridge. Because without Justice Bridge and the emergence of more programs like Justice Bridge, the future of the legal industry looks progressively bleak.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Brown is a Boston Business Lawyer and a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, LLP. He graduated from NUSL in 2012, and swears he is NOT pulling your leg about this Justice Bridge project, like he did that one time about another promising Justice Gap solution.