The Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator shifts from physical to digital.
By Eric Quitugua
As a State Bar of Texas program addressing the justice gap, the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator, or TOJI, cultivates self-sufficient solo attorneys focused on serving clients who earn too much money to qualify for free legal aid services but not enough to afford most attorney’s high upfront costs and unpredictable pricing. Since 2017, 20 participants have graduated from a holistic 18-month business and marketing education designed to strengthen lawyers’ practices, hosted at office spaces in bustling Austin.
But with the program drawing applicants from across the second-largest state in America, State Bar of Texas staff members recognized the need to include attorneys based in areas away from the capital city. Beginning in January 2020, TOJI will go virtual, expanding who can take part in the incubator, whether the attorneys are logging in from Austin or Alpine.
“Many of the lawyers in TOJI offer virtual services to clients as a way to keep overhead low, keep pricing affordable, and serve more people,” TOJI Director Anne-Marie Rábago said. “Similarly, for TOJI, we’ve seen that it’s not necessary to be in the same room to share knowledge and expertise or to provide support for each other.”
The TOJI brain trust, which includes TOJI Program Director Courtney Giesinger, is in the planning stages of revamping the curriculum for virtual delivery. Different technologies, costs, and ways to update content are on the table.
Rábago anticipates providing tools for self-study—“watch this video, read this article, complete this exercise, etc.”—followed by interactive group discussions done through video conferencing. TOJI has relied on Zoom for video conferences throughout its existence and Slack, which Rábago and Giesinger use to keep participants updated and lawyers have used to share resources and referrals, ask for advice, and generally stay connected. Both programs will likely continue as communication ports for TOJI’s lawyers in their own office spaces.
The curriculum still focuses on everything from forming business plans to ways of charging clients to marketing. But among the changes, TOJI is shifting to a 12-month program model and will graduate one cohort per year.
Experience requirements will also expand. Whereas applicants to previous cohorts needed to be within their first five years of practice, TOJI now invites recent law graduates and attorneys of all experience levels. Gaps in employment also present no obstacle to being accepted to the program. Lawyers returning to the legal workforce after time away caring for family members or pursuing other career paths, for example, are welcome to apply.
“By bringing together lawyers who are at different points on their career trajectories, everyone in TOJI benefits from the diversity of experience,” Rábago said.
When the next cohort begins in January, they’ll meet at the Texas Law Center in Austin for two days of orientation. After that, it’s off to the virtual world, with individual coaching and group discussions. Rábago and Giesinger will encourage lawyers from the same regions of Texas to set up their own in-person meetups, ideally surrounding events like CLEs, the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting, and the Texas Minority Counsel Program, Rábago said.
Through a virtual TOJI, lawyers can apply the lessons they’re learning to their practices while still being present in their communities. Incubator staff members say the program now “meets the lawyers where they are.” No more missed time with their children, spouses, friends, or colleagues. And owing to the digital nature of this new iteration of TOJI, participants will be able to create a network of new colleagues across the state with different levels of experience.
“Our recruitment cycles have shown us there are lawyers throughout Texas who want to make a difference for low- and modest-income communities,” Rábago said. “Now, they can join us from wherever they are in their lives and their careers.”
For more information about TOJI, go to txoji.com.TBJ