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It's not a secret that this nation, and this state, has an access to justice problem. For many Americans, legal help is simply too expensive to afford. The problem is even worse in rural areas, where even if you could afford a lawyer, there might not be one within a hundred miles.
How bad is the problem here in California? California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu summed up the crisis in a speech last month:
"If you were to fill AT&T Park up with indigent people who qualify for legal aid, there would be just five people in the park who are legal aid lawyers to serve the entire ballpark," he stated. "Even for people at the median income, most people cannot afford a lawyer."
It's a pretty huge issue, but is there a solution?
'Modest Means' Incubator Projects
We have a group of clients with limited means, but where do we get the lawyers? Recent graduates, the same ones that are unemployed or underemployed.
The law firm incubator movement has been slowly catching on since the recession. The first incubator, according to the Cal Bar Journal, was established at City University of New York in 2007. There are now an estimated two dozen incubators nationwide, including three in California.
The Modest Means Incubator Project, from the California Commission on Access to Justice, is a series of meetings, as well as grants, to help start more of these incubators, which focus on turning graduates into practicing attorneys who cater to low-income clientele.
It's a great idea, in theory, but there are two glaring issues.
Will the Lawyers Stick?
You're a recent graduate. How much debt do you have? While one of these incubators may be intriguing to start, especially as an alternative to being untrained and unemployed, once you've gotten up to speed on law practice, are you really going to continue serving the indigent?
Unless these incubators focus on transitioning these lawyers into public interest legal aid positions (which bring student loan forgiveness), rather than small business law firms, the temptation to ditch the low-income practice might drain the trained labor pool.
Is This Enough?
According to the Cal Bar Journal article, the project has a mere $205,000 in funding, which goes towards three meetings discussing incubator models and resources, as well as seed grants for incubator projects. That's a lot to cover with (pardon the pun) modest means.
Perhaps this is the Silicon Valley part of us talking, but why the analogue approach to such a massive problem? We're training lawyers to deal with clients' problems one-on-one, through a traditional firm model. Perhaps the incubators should be focused on alternative legal services or delivery models, such as low or no cost DIY solutions, or they could look to the San Jose Pro Bono Project's Virtual Legal Services, which connects volunteer attorneys to clients over the Internet.
Either idea would provide more access to legal assistance than setting up incubators to push out more solo firms, most of which would abandon the low income segment as soon as the debt collectors come calling.