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TOJI to Date

In four years, the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator has become one of the largest legal incubators in the world.

By Frank E. Stevenson


We should be grateful for the people who ask the hard questions.

In early 2016, then-State Bar Executive Director Michelle Hunter asked me, “What are you planning next year as State Bar president? Have you thought about a legal incubator?”

“A legal incu-what-ey?,” I Zoolandered back.

And thus, success was grasped. Or, more specifically, the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator, or TOJI, was launched by the State Bar of Texas.

Just 10 months later it hired a director—the experienced incubator leader Anne-Marie Rábago—and was soliciting applicants. Six months after that—in April 2017—TOJI opened its doors to its first 10-member cohort of lawyers; although a brand-new and untested program, almost five times as many Texas lawyers applied as TOJI had spaces.

The hoped-for benefits of the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator are explicit in its name: Opportunity and Justice.

TOJI delivers opportunity by providing proven, real-world training for lawyers who want to build economically sustainable solo-practice careers serving the undeserved; TOJI delivers justice by providing affordable legal assistance for low- and moderate-income populations.

The need for both is manifest.

Lawyers often cite wanting to help people as the reason they went to law school. Yet many lawyers with hearts for service feel they cannot pursue a career their heads say will place them and their families at financial risk. What they need are the training and tools to make solo practices economically viable via entrepreneurship and technology. Thus equipped, choosing a solo practice could confer upon both new and experienced lawyers the latitude to decide which populations to serve, the flexibility to be active in their communities and further engaged with their families, and the freedom to take pro bono and modest means cases without weighing an employer’s minimum billing requirements or other expectations.

At the same time, only 1 in 5 low-income Americans with civil legal needs ever finds help. For middle-income Americans it’s not much better—only 2 in 5. This despite the thousands of hours and millions of dollars that Texas attorneys, legal aid groups, lawyers, and law firms generously dedicate to pro bono work.

Thus, our fellow attorneys have a profound need for opportunity and our fellow citizens have a profound need for justice. Those two needs are knit in TOJI.

That’s accomplished by furnishing lawyers with extensive support and education on how to successfully operate solo practices that specifically serve the legal needs of the modest-means community.

Our TOJI lawyers have focused on elder law, immigration, landlord/tenant issues, family law, consumer law, criminal defense, representing victims of domestic violence, representing the LGBTQ community, protecting the rights of families of children with special needs, and similar areas sought by the legally underserved.

While in the incubator, TOJI lawyers must perform a stipulated amount of pro bono work, which, in addition to contributing to legal access, provides valuable practical experience.

Just as importantly, using various State Bar practice-management programs and other resources, they learn how to run a law office with a focus on cutting-edge technology, and are taught to develop a marketing plan and a five-year business plan.

TOJI thus equips these lawyers to meet the everyday legal needs of everyday Texans, while also kindling a mutually advantageous community where lawyers can share knowledge, experience, and business development opportunities.

Legal incubators have but a single feeble thing to commend them: namely, they work.

From April 2017 through the end of July 2019, TOJI lawyers represented 2,476 clients in 28 areas of law, including 306 pro bono clients and 1,257 modest-income clients. They worked 10,952 modest-income hours and 3,816 pro bono hours for the underserved, valued at $1,858,302—a huge access-to-justice dividend.

But note that during much of that 28-month period, TOJI was ramping up and did not have its full complement of lawyers. The annual access-to-justice dividend for our incubator at continuous full-strength appears to be over $1 million a year in modest-means service and pro bono hours.

But even that amount grossly understates the access-to-justice benefit the State Bar is achieving through its incubator. That’s only what the first few TOJI cohorts contributed while working in the incubator. TOJI’s real benefit is what these lawyers accomplish once they are out of the incubator and over the course of their careers.

Applying the data from longer-established incubators for how many graduates continue in modest-means practices and the percentage of their practices spent serving modest-means clients suggests that over the course of their careers, the lawyers TOJI graduates every year will deliver an access-to-justice dividend of over $8 million. Adding in the benefit achieved while those lawyers were practicing within the incubator itself, TOJI’s overall annual legal-access dividend is likely over $9 million—40 times what the State Bar spends to operate it.

There are over 60 legal incubators in over 30 states and four countries. In the four years since Michelle Hunter’s and my exchange, TOJI has become one of the largest legal incubators in the world. After all, this is the Texas Bar, y’all.

There are almost as many forms of legal incubators as there are incubators—Baylor University has its Legal Mapmaker, Texas A&M University School of Law created its Texas Apprenticeship Network, and the Dallas Bar Association is commencing Entrepreneurs in Community Lawyering; these and similar programs ensure that lawyers learn the nuts and bolts of solo practice.

Despite being a Central Texas-based program, TOJI lawyers have nonetheless served clients in 74 different counties. As you’ll read on page 702, TOJI’s reach is about to expand statewide.

Yes, we should be grateful for the people who ask the hard questions. But maybe even more precious than the people who ask the hard questions are the people who believe the hard things.

Hard things: like believing that with the right training and tools, and matched with the right drive and entrepreneurship, a lawyer’s heart for service can cleave to a head for success.

TOJI believes that hard thing, and is accomplishing it. And it’s only just getting started … TBJ

 

StevensonFRANK E. STEVENSON
inaugurated TOJI during his service as the 2016-2017 president of the State Bar of Texas. A past chair of the State Bar of Texas Board of Directors and past president of the Dallas Bar Association, he now serves on the board of trustees of the Texas Bar Foundation and as vice president of the Western States Bar Conference. He is a partner in Locke Lord in Dallas.

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