Share this on Twitter Share this on Facebook Share this on Linked In Share this by Email
MCLE Self-Assessment Test

New attorneys learn resilience in incubator projects

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

When Christopher Markelz graduated Whittier Law School in May 2013, he knew he wanted his own practice but the idea of launching it was daunting.

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.

William Tanner
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, Evans noted.

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 providers.

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 Counsel.

“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 movement.

“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 incubator.

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 job market.

“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.