By Kirsten Mickelwait
The U.S. is faced with a disproportionate surplus of attorneys. And yet it’s currently ranked lowest among industrialized nations on the World Justice Project Civil Justice Index for access to civil justice—behind such countries as Estonia, Iran, Ghana, and Nigeria. This schism is the motivating factor behind a trend toward legal entrepreneurship programs, including the Bay Area Legal Incubator, a two-year training program being launched by Berkeley Law and four other Bay Area law schools.
According to statistics recently released by the American Bar Association (ABA), 50 years ago the U.S. had nearly 300,000 practicing attorneys. In the decades since, the number of lawyers increased by 431 percent—to nearly 1.3 million. Yet the ABA also reports that nearly one million people who qualified for legal aid in 2012 were turned away because of a shortage of lawyers serving low-income people.
The problem is not limited to poor populations; fewer than four out of ten moderate-income people turn to the legal system for solutions, and more than a quarter of those with legal problems do nothing. This disparity has come to be called the “justice gap,” describing the growing numbers of the public who are too poor to afford a lawyer yet not poor enough to qualify for legal aid.
An incubator is born
An Associate Director for Public Interest Programs in the law school’s Career Development Office, Melanie Rowen is focused on helping students develop public-service careers. In April 2014, she learned about the Chicago Justice Entrepreneurs Project, a legal incubator for recent law graduates to start their own socially-conscious law firms. The next week, Rowen attended a conference of the California State Bar to discuss innovations in serving modest-means clients in the state. When she found herself in a small group with Tiela Chalmers, CEO of the Alameda County Bar Association, Rowen pitched the idea of a similar project for the Bay Area.
Thus was born the Bay Area Legal Incubator (BALI), a fulltime, two-year training program in which recent admittees to the California Bar will receive education, support, and professional mentoring to learn how to successfully operate a solo or small-firm law practice that serves the modest-means community. The project’s goal is two-fold: to close the justice gap and to provide sustainable, socially conscious employment for recent law school graduates. The five participating law schools are Berkeley Law, Golden Gate University School of Law, Santa Clara Law, UC Hastings, and the University of San Francisco School of Law.
The inaugural class
Launched with a grant from the State Bar of California and funds from participating schools, BALI will offer an extensive curriculum of training, including substantive areas of the law and also practical business skills such as office management and marketing. Participants are required to set up their own practice when they start the program, commit to serving modest-means clients in at least half of their cases, and remain engaged in the program to mentor future enrollees. The program is expected to be housed in a renovated space provided by the Alameda County Law Library.
BALI will officially launch in January 2016, accepting 15 students (three from each school) from the class of 2015. One such student is Kai Haswell ’15, who heard about the program during a public-interest career information session for graduating students. Haswell had thought about opening his own practice, but the challenges seemed insurmountable for a new law graduate with student debt and limited legal experience. When he heard that there were resources available for just that purpose, he decided to apply on the spot.
“I’m excited about the program for two reasons,” Haswell said. “First, I think it’s an innovative way to expand access to the legal system for disadvantaged people. Second, I love the idea of crafting a unique message and service oriented around the causes I care about.” Haswell hopes that his intended participation in BALI will help expand opportunities for future Berkeley Law graduates. “I’d love to become a mentor and trainer for a program like BALI and help introduce a new public-interest business model to the legal profession,” he said.
Why Berkeley is a natural fit
According to Rowen, the incubator program will deepen Berkeley Law’s engagement with the future of the legal profession. “This program is about supporting students for whom this is a dream job,” she said. “Typically, the choice has been between joining a larger law firm, or going into the nonprofit or government space. BALI is for those who have an entrepreneurial spirit and want to use their law degrees to make a difference with their own solo practice.”
Because of Berkeley’s culture of public service, Rowen sees it as a great natural fit for the incubator model. “This project builds another bridge between Berkeley Law and the forefront of legal practice,” she said. “We want to make it a better profession—not just for the very wealthy, but for everyone.”