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You have to have an independent streak to start your own solo practice. But that doesn't mean you have to be totally alone in the venture. More and more lawyers are taking advantage of legal incubators, programs that provide training, guidance, and even office space for lawyers bootstrapping their own practice. In exchange, participants must often commit to public interest work, or "low bono" practice.
So, if you're considering starting your own firm, should you look in to an incubation program first?
Going Solo, With Some Help
For new attorneys and recent grads, legal incubators are becoming increasingly easy to find. In the past, most incubator programs were run by law schools exclusively for their own graduates committed to working in access to justice areas.
But the incubation universe has grown rapidly in past years. Many incubators are now being run by bar associations and open to a wider range of lawyers. The ABA has identified 50 active incubator programs focused on a variety of practice areas. Many are devoted to poverty law and public interest practice, sure, but there are now incubators for entertainment lawyers, land use practices, and "innovation law."
If you participate in an incubator, there are some clear benefits. First, the advice and mentorship can be invaluable. Many lawyers who start their own practices, particularly straight out of law school, may need guidance on how to gain clients, work through a matter, deal with local court systems, and the like. An incubator helps hold your hand.
Another major benefit is office space and shared services. Incubators often provide free or discounted office space, which is much better than working out of your living room.
Some programs, like the Bay Area Legal Incubator, even offer funding to help get your practice going.
And Now for the Cons
Not everyone is in love with incubators, though. Carolyn Elefant, an attorney and blogger, has a few qualms, for example. Writing on incubators in Above the Law, she wonders "whether lawyers starting out in incubators learn to make the kinds of touch business decisions that work-a-day solos have to make every day."
After lawyers graduate from an incubation program, for example, will they be able to sustain a practice focused on clients with modest means, once the free rent has gone away? Will they know how to keep their practices afloat?
Finally, Elefant wonders, will these incubated lawyers continue to serve underserved populations, or even to maintain a solo firm?
Surprisingly in today's data-driven world, I've found virtually no information on what happens to lawyers after they leave the nest. My guess is that only a few actually stay in solo practice, but instead try to parlay their experience into a job with a small law firm or a staff attorney position at a non-profit.
For attorneys who've gone through such programs, that's not always a bad thing. They've gained experience, served the public, and can move on in their careers. But if the goal is to continue on in a publicly-minded small practice, an incubator might not ensure success.