Transition to Practice
New lawyers from across the state join Texas legal incubator to build business skills and close the justice gap.
By Patricia Busa McConnico
Crystal Fletcher is all too
familiar with the access to justice gap—the circumstance in which people
in need of legal assistance don’t have the means to pay for services.
She came from a family that could have fallen right into it. Her
parents, who received GED diplomas after not finishing high school,
struggled to keep their small construction company afloat and provide
for Crystal and her brother. Their dedication was not lost on her.
She carried that strong work ethic with her when she landed a job as a children’s program director at a homeless shelter. She used it during law school when she assisted a client who fell through the cracks of the long-term care system and eventually died. And she applied it to the many cases she handled while helping disaster survivors rebuild their lives as an attorney adviser for the United States Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance. Fletcher has a passion to help those in need, which is why she’ll be spending 18 months in Austin at the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator, a program that aims to bridge the justice gap by connecting new lawyers looking for opportunities to make a difference in the community with citizens in need of legal assistance.
Launched by the State Bar of Texas on April 3, TOJI is the first legal incubator designed exclusively for Texas-licensed lawyers who want to build sustainable practices that serve low- and modest-income Texans. Studies have shown that only one in five low-income Americans and two in five middle-income Americans with civil needs find legal help. “Currently, the enormous need for justice and the enormous need for opportunity don’t meet,” State Bar President Frank Stevenson said. “TOJI will provide justice for our fellow Texans and opportunity for our fellow Texas lawyers.” Stevenson made the program one of his primary presidential initiatives.
The movement toward legal incubators began in New York in 2007 and has since gained traction, with about 60 incubators currently up and running across the nation and in four other countries. In February 2016, after extensive research and discussions on existing programs, Stevenson, along with State Bar Executive Director Michelle Hunter and Purchasing and Facilities Director Paul Rogers, toured the Justice Entrepreneur Project, an incubator formed by the Chicago Bar Foundation, which eventually became the framework for TOJI. “We are working with law schools, local bars, legal aid groups, and others to enhance the benefits the TOJI program provides,” Hunter said. “We hope our model and curriculum eventually can be replicated by other organizations across Texas.”
Above top: DeVondolyn Arrington, a member of the first cohort who
relocated to Austin to participate in the program, after a meeting on
the first day at the office.
Above: The first Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator cohort.
Back row from left: Jackson Gorski, DeVondolyn Arrington, Kori Martin,
Carolyn Cadena, Claire Vaho, and Andrew Bernick. Front row from left:
Mary Rios, Crystal Fletcher, Sarah Kelly, and Mario Cantu.
Most programs, including TOJI, support participants with training geared toward developing business skills and an entrepreneurial mindset. “A big piece of what we look for in our interviews and selection process is that true entrepreneurial spirit of fortitude, tenacity, and flexibility,” said TOJI Director Anne-Marie Rábago, who earned her J.D. from California Western School of Law and later served as director of the school’s Access to Law Incubator. “An understanding that you must take risks and there will be failure, but that you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, change direction if you need to, and keep moving forward.”
The selection process proved quite competitive. After the launch of TOJI’s website—txoji.com—in the fall of 2016, Rábago and her staff responded to more than 400 phone and email inquiries from potential applicants, volunteer attorneys, and law school faculty. Rábago received almost 50 applications for the available 10 spots in the initial cohort. “I applied to the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator program after attending an information session and learning about its objectives,” said Jackson Gorski, a member of the first cohort who has been licensed to practice law since 2014. “I wanted to join a group of new lawyers who are starting their own practices while focusing on assisting underserved Texans. The TOJI program is a novel approach to addressing both issues, and I am very excited to be a part of it.”
The participating attorneys will be sharing two offices in a co-working space near the University of Texas at Austin campus, where they have access to a receptionist, printers, the internet, a kitchen and dining area, and free parking. Conference rooms and phone booths are available when the attorneys need a private spot for confidential communications.
The two biggest costs associated with starting an incubator program are space and personnel, Rábago said, which is why she spent a great deal of her time searching for the ideal location. TOJI participants will be saving thousands of dollars compared to what they would spend opening a solo practice on their own, according to Rábago. She estimates that the first-year cost through TOJI is about $3,000 to $5,000, a range that varies according to bar dues and fees (which are dependent on years of licensure) and fees for malpractice insurance (which are dependent on years of experience). The savings is nearly $30,000 in the first 12 months. “Every dollar that has to come out of the new lawyer’s pocket is a barrier to entry,” Rábago said. Which is why the State Bar is paying to lease the office space. Participants get their first six months rent free, then pay $300 monthly for the next year, which is still significantly subsidized. Other savings include legal research software, continuing legal education, business coaching, and practice management software.
The first group began with a three-week intensive boot camp, with the first week focused on starting a business, the second on getting clients, and the third on serving clients. “It is like drinking water from a fire hose,” Rábago said. “They leave each day with homework assignments, but it sets the foundation for their businesses. This is definitely a full-time endeavor.” DeVondolyn Arrington, a member of the first cohort who relocated from Atlanta, Georgia, to Austin to participate in the program, said the first day was filled with positive energy. “We’re getting to know each other and getting to know ourselves and what we are really going to do from here on out.”
Participants will be trained on everything from setting up bank accounts and developing marketing plans to setting fees and drafting engagement agreements. “I think one of the benefits of owning your own business is that you get to define what success is for yourself and what your commitment to it is,” Rábago said.
TOJI is an 18-month program, with a new group of attorneys selected to join every six months and 30 participating at full capacity. After boot camp, the program is divided into six-month themes: acceleration (getting up and running), business building (fine-tuning while taking risks), and maintenance (identifying and documenting processes). Sprinkled in are guest speakers, monthly meetings, workshops, CLEs, and pro bono opportunities. Participants in the program are required to do 150 hours of pro bono work. Essentially, TOJI attorneys will qualify to be members of the State Bar Pro Bono College for the two calendar years that their TOJI memberships span. TOJI is working with numerous legal aid organizations, volunteer attorneys, and clinics to provide opportunities for learning and serving. “What we are trying to do is set them up to do pro bono work in the areas of law in which they intend to provide client services,” Rábago said. “We hope their involvement sets the habit and instills the practice of providing pro bono services throughout their careers.”
Helping those in need is the common thread through this first cohort, which intends to provide services in the areas of consumer protection, contracts, criminal defense, elder law, estate planning and probate, family law, guardianship, immigration, real estate, and small business law. Fletcher, one of the attorneys in this first group, believes that the combination of where she came from, where she has been, and where she wants to be will lead to her success in the TOJI program. “My experiences have not only prepared me for this, but have driven me to it,” she stated in her application essay. “I am ready to be a part of the legal community that is revolutionizing the practice of law in Texas.”
For more information about TOJI, go to txoji.com.TBJ