Incubators provide stepping stones for young lawyers
By John Roemer
Special to the Bar Journal
|James Anderson - Photo by S. Todd Rogers
James-Phillip V.M. Anderson was a rookie with a law degree,
a bar card and underwhelming job prospects last year when he joined one of
California’s new attorney incubator programs.
The Northern California Lawyer Access’ Law Practice Academy
in Nevada City offered him mentoring and hands-on experience. Then came the
break he’d hoped for: Anderson’s work on a hotly litigated child custody case
impressed the veteran family law practitioner opposing him so much that she offered
him a job – and then handed over the keys to her Nevada City office.
“It’s right across the street from the courthouse. She
started referring clients to me,” Anderson said in mid-March. “Now I’m taking
over the lease. And my sign goes up next week.”
That lawyer, Jayne Kelly Nordstrom, said she was tired of
her long commute from the San Francisco Bay Area and wanted to spend more time
with her local clients. Nordstrom said Anderson’s hard work earned her respect.
“He’s a rising star,” Nordstrom said. “I could see at once
here was a young lawyer with a brain and common sense.… I’ve referred about six
cases to him.”
Fledgling lawyers like Anderson are getting guidance from
veteran attorneys through incubator programs across the state, some funded with
grants from the State Bar and California Commission on Access to Justice. The
role of incubators is to give new attorneys real-world experience, as well deliver
badly needed legal services to moderate- and low-income clients.
Anderson is enthusiastic about having been in the inaugural
class of his incubator program at a time when the job market for new lawyers
continues to be bleak in many parts of the state.
“I joined the [Law Practice] Academy because it seemed to be
a good opportunity to advance myself faster and network with other new solo
attorneys,” he said. “The face of the law is changing. It’s not all big
highfalutin’ attorneys making all this money. A lot of us are sole proprietors
working with real folks.”
|Liza Zakour celebrates with mentoring staff attorney Maria Hall at a recent launch party for the Los Angeles Incubator Consortium. – Photo courtesy of Scott Markus
Liza Zakour feels the same way. She was in the Los Angeles
Incubator Consortium’s first class, which she joined soon after passing the
bar. A Syrian American training to work with immigrants, Zakour once
encountered an older Syrian couple in immigration court. They appeared
frightened and confused, so Zakour approached them and communicated in Arabic, only
to learn they were from the same part of Syria as her parents. Surprised, the
couple spoke with her eagerly and said they would call her if they ever needed
a lawyer. That experience helped shape her career. Now Zakour is up and running
as a sole practitioner.
“I’m making money,” she said. “This was a great way to get
my foot in the door.”
Four programs in Northern California, Los Angeles, Orange
County and the San Francisco Bay Area have gotten $180,000 in incubator grants
from the State Bar and Access Commission. By the end of 2015, 58 attorneys
graduated from the incubator programs after completing 5,500 hours of practice
training and providing 11,938 hours of pro bono legal assistance, according to
a report from the State Bar Office of Legal Services.
There are strong signs the programs have paid off. Many
graduates now have sustainable, low-fee law practices, and they come from diverse
The Los Angeles program’s first class spoke 11 languages,
including Spanish, Korean, Russian, Urdu, Farsi, Armenian, Arabic, Mandarin and
Cantonese, said Theresa Mesa, a program developer with the Office of Legal
Services. The Bay Area Legal Incubator’s first 13 participants included 70
percent people of color, 40 percent were first-generation United States citizens
and 70 percent were bilingual or trilingual. Half of them identified as
lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning and intersex, Mesa
A few of the graduates, like Anderson, were offered jobs by
mentors or opposing counsel. The existing incubators started a second round of
their programs last month with more participants than last year. Two other
programs began without State Bar funding and at least three lawyer referral
services have added moderate means panels.
The “Incubator Guide,” published by the Access Commission
and drafted by Misa and Kelli M. Evans, senior director for the administration
of justice at the bar’s Office of Legal Services, continues to be used
nationally as a resource for other programs.
In California, the Central Valley, where lawyers are scarce
and the need for legal services is overwhelming, remains a key challenge for
incubator programs, but help is on the way.
In Fresno County, Dean of the San Joaquin College of Law Jan
Pearson described a problem she encountered when she and the director of the
school’s New American Legal Clinic, Gregory Olson, tried to get an incubator
“Unfortunately, our graduates have no difficulty finding
employment, so we did not have a group of new lawyers interested in the
program,” Pearson stated in an email.
But things can change suddenly. In San Joaquin County when
two veteran lawyers from Stockton were disciplined in the space of 12 months,
it left a vacuum in legal services in a region with a large immigrant
population. One was disbarred in Kansas, where she was licensed, and the other
was suspended by the State Bar for 18 months for misconduct.
The disbarment of Mary Yehlen Brooks by the Kansas Supreme
Court and the suspension of Hector Arnoldo Cavazos Jr. galvanized the local
legal community to create incubator programs.
Rebekah Burr-Siegel, the executive director of the San
Joaquin County Bar Association and Foundation, called it the valley’s biggest
problem for a while.
“We had young attorneys who were tarnished because they had
worked with Brooks or Cavazos. We could see they were in over their heads,” she
said. “We were left with one good immigration lawyer in town. We needed lawyers
trained properly and ethically to assist a huge underserved community.”
Poverty lawyers at California Rural Legal Assistance
couldn’t help, because they are forbidden by law to aid the undocumented,
Burr-Siegel said. So the bar put together a task force and worked their connections.
Jayne Chong-Soon Lee, a lawyer who moved from Alameda County
to Stockton, linked the bar association’s task force to San Francisco’s
Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) and its founder, Bill O. Hing, a
prominent immigration rights and policy attorney.
An ILRC community outreach grant was available, but Burr-Siegel
said there was no one available at the San Joaquin County Bar Association
qualified to do immigration outreach, which was a problem. So the group
persuaded the ILRC to reclassify the funds as a training grant. That made all
the difference, Burr-Siegel said.
Now, she added, “our plan now is to train four to five
attorneys to do immigration law. We’re in touch with an immigration judge in
San Francisco who wants to help. We want to bring our lawyers to immigration
court there to see the system in action.”
One problem for remote areas is the physical distance
between them. Attorneys in Stockton and other parts of the Central Valley feel
cut off geographically and culturally from larger metropolitan areas.
“We’re remote,” Burr-Siegel said. “We’re only 90 miles away,
and the people in Stockton don’t see the Bay Area as that far away, but for the
people in San Francisco, we might as well be in Hawaii.”
California’s 20 northernmost counties, an area bigger than
Ohio, is another region cut off from the rest of the state. There, Northern
California Lawyer Access’ Law Practice Academy started with four incubator
lawyers last year and will work with six new candidates this year.
The group, which began a private nonprofit lawyer referral
service as an offshoot of the Nevada County Bar Association, is based in Nevada
City. To stay connected, “teleconferencing is key,” said Jo Anne Stone, a
nonpracticing attorney who is the group’s administrator. “We’re just too far
away from everybody.”
The State Bar provided extra technical support to the NCLA
Academy in light of its tiny budget, antiquated equipment and the reality that
there are no law schools, foundations or major bar associations within its
“Some of the bar associations around here are just lunch
clubs without the manpower or the will to take this kind of thing on,” said
Stone. “We’re up here in the wilderness on our own, which has its own charm and
its own problems.”
Still, the group has had an impact. When the destructive
Valley Fire scorched 70,000 acres in Lake County in September 2015, Stone and
her cadre headed west.
“I almost hated to ask them to do it, because I knew we’d be
sleeping on the ground and in our trucks,” Stone said. “But my guys wanted to
be the first ones there.”
They set up tables and phone lines alongside the Red Cross
and the Salvation Army. At one point they found themselves behind the fire
lines, giving advice to victims on how to file claims, work on landlord-tenant
problems and deal with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), she
Stone in Nevada City, Burr-Siegel in Stockton and others
credited state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin H. Liu for generating strong
interest in incubator programs with an influential 2014 speech that was Skyped
to law schools and bar associations around the state.
Liu remains enthusiastic. The programs “tap into why the
vast majority of our students want to go to law school: to serve their
communities while making a decent living,” he said in an email.
“They are a step toward making the legal profession truly a
service profession,” he said. “Research confirms that lawyers in public service
jobs report the highest levels of happiness in the profession, as well as lower
levels of substance abuse and mental health problems.”
In the end, the incubators benefit everyone, Liu said. “Good
for the lawyers, good for the profession and good for society: a win-win-win.”
John Roemer is a
San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer who has covered the California legal
community for more than 20 years.