New attorneys learn resilience in incubator projects
By Amy Yarbrough
When Christopher Markelz graduated Whittier Law School in
May 2013, he knew he wanted his own practice but the idea of launching it was
Markelz began volunteering at the Legal Aid Society of
Orange County’s clinic and went on to participate in its Legal Entrepreneur
Assistance Program (LEAP), which helps fledgling attorneys gain hands-on legal
experience while assisting low and modest-means clients.
|Incubator Director William Tanner works with trainees Emily Hetu (left) and Aida Angelique Khamis. Photo by Hugh Hamilton.
Through the so-called “incubator” program Markelz received
mentoring, gained experience in different areas of the law and even represented
clients in court.
“It was awesome, because where else are you going to get
that training?” he said.
Soon, experiences like Markelz’s will be available to dozens
more attorneys around the state.
On Jan. 12, the California Commission on Access to Justice
announced it had awarded $180,000 in seed grants to expand LEAP and launch
three new incubator projects around the state – in the San Francisco Bay Area,
Los Angeles and a fourth covering rural counties in Northern California. The
goal of the Modest Means Incubator program is to train lawyers to create
sustainable law practices providing affordable legal services.
Kelli Evans, senior director of administration of justice for
the State Bar, said the four recipient projects were chosen from two dozen
applications “from every corner of the state.
“It was very gratifying. There was a large group of
solid, comprehensive proposals,” she said.
There’s a mix of players involved in the individual projects,
including law schools, legal aid, local bar associations and law libraries,
The Bay Area Regional Incubator Project, for example, is a
collaboration between the Alameda County Bar Association’s Volunteer Services
Corp. and the following law schools: UC Hastings, Santa Clara University,
University of San Francisco, UC Berkeley and Golden Gate University. Other
partnering entities include the Contra Costa County Bar Association, Bar
Association of San Francisco, the Alameda County Law Library and legal service
In Southern California, the Los Angeles County Incubator
Consortium will bring together three law schools – Southwestern, Pepperdine
University and UCLA – and the Los Angeles County Law Library as well as legal
aid organizations. They are: Bet Tzedek, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles,
Community Legal Services, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles and Public
“One of the things we are most excited about is the
breadth of the collaborations,” Evans said, adding the new projects and the
groups involved raises California’s profile in the national incubator
“We’ve significantly expanded the universe of players involved in
this initiative,” she said.
Although there are no law schools in the far-flung 20
Northern California counties it covers, the Northern California Lawyer Access
(NCLA) Academy Project plans to recruit new graduates from other parts of the state along with local attorneys with less
than two years of experience. Participants will pay
$300 a month in tuition for the program, which will last from 12 to 18 months and
use a storefront in Nevada County in California’s Sierra Nevadas as a
traditional law office and resource center. The storefront will also serve as a
base for a virtual law office that can reach every rural county in Northern California.
As they hone their skills, academy participants will be able
to start earning fees representing modest-means clients.
“Of course we are greatly flattered by the award,” Stephen Haas, chairman of the board of directors of NCLA, wrote
in an email. “Our intent in applying for it in the first place was to better
serve the folks with modest means who have legal needs in our service area, while
at the same time providing mentoring to new lawyers.”
The Legal Aid Society of Orange County, the only grant
recipient with an incubator already up and running, plans to expand its program
to partner with four local law schools in Orange County. The new grant money will
help train up to 40 new attorneys. The law schools will help finance the
program after the grant expires.
Legal Aid provides everything from program administration
and subsidized office space to mock hearings, case management and case reviews.
Whereas the program had previously focused on getting
participants into court early while training them in family law, evictions and
some bankruptcy and conservatorship matters, it will expand to include more
areas of the law and to teach new lawyers the nuts and bolts of running a law
practice, according to Directing Attorney William Tanner.
“Lots of modest-means folks are going to be served because
lawyers have figured out how to pay their bills and serve their clients,” said
Tanner, who has also been tapped to provide guidance to the Los Angeles County
Though it will now hone in on training new lawyers to become
better prepared to strike out on their own, Tanner said LEAP already has a
successful track record when it comes to making participants competitive in the
“They’re competing with other people who weren’t going to
court and doing trials,”
Tanner said. "We’ve had some [participants] who’ve opened up their own
practices and then got offers from firms and went to that firm. I think [it’s]
because of their skills, motivation and what we have helped them to do.”
Ian Kasoff, who has been in LEAP since July, agreed, noting
that he was able to do a day-and-a-half long trial in December. He said he’s
not sure how long it would have taken him to do one otherwise.
“It’s a big confidence booster too, having the experience
going to court and having a rapport with the judges makes [things] much
easier,” he said. The camaraderie of other team members also helps.
“It’s nice to just have a group of 20-plus people who are in
the same boat as you,” he added.
Markelz, the Whittier Law School graduate, said since
starting LEAP in June, he’s already launched his law practice thanks to the
support and training he’s received.
He now shares office space with another attorney and
business has been going “gangbusters,” he said. Markelz has been doing family
law, some civil litigation and landlord tenant law, as well as some criminal
law matters. He said it’s nice to be able to experiment early on in his career.
“I’m learning new things every day,” he said.