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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Incubators provide stepping stones for young lawyers

By John Roemer
Special to the Bar Journal

James Anderson
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.”

Zakour and Hall
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 backgrounds.

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 said.

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 going.

“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 service area.

“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 said.

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.