We’re used to the idea that good lawyers aren’t born, they’re made. But for mentors like Maria Hall, it’s how they’re made that’s important.

Every year in February, Hall–the director of the Los Angeles Incubator Consortium–ushers in a new cohort of 10-12 newly-minted law grads to show them the recipe for success as a free-thinking, adaptable and driven law practitioner.

No matter how much promise and idealism you have, jumping headfirst into the world of becoming a “new solo” (or a freshman-level solo practitioner) can be scary when you’re caught in the purgatory between reading books and filing briefs in the real world. But within their small cohort at LAIC, newbies get to feel what it’s like to learn as a group, yet think for themselves when it actually comes to being a lawyer.

As the legal industry becomes even more strained and uncertain during the pandemic, the ability to think outside the box to find new ways to a desired path in the profession is more important than ever.

“In law school you don’t learn a trade, you learn ‘how to think like a lawyer’ and you don’t learn how to practice family law. You don’t learn how to do the forms and then do somebody’s divorce,” Hall said. “You learn, ‘Well these are the cases, this is how you analyze, this is how you critically think’….in the incubator we do get more creative personalities who are used to having to create something out of nothing.”

Charting a New Legal Path

 

Since 2015, LAIC has become a real-world training ground for law grads to build their own personal foundations as attorneys while providing access to justice for local communities and establishing themselves as top-level solos. The incubator is a collaboration of Southwestern Law School, UCLA School of Law, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, local legal aid organizations, and the Los Angeles County Law Library. What started as a pilot program through a grant from the State Bar of California’s Commission on Access to Justice is now among the most reputable legal incubators in the country in less than six years.

Graduates are selected out of law school to join the program for one year while they receive basic legal training to build their solo legal practices and establish their network of peers while serving the needs of low-income communities around LA, offering pro bono hours under the training of Hall and other coaching attorneys at LAIC.

They kick things off every year with a first-week “boot camp.” But unlike bigger corporate firms that might use that period as a time to adapt individual attorneys to the firm’s culture, LAIC prefers to use it to share the practical nuts and bolts of creating a law practice based on a lawyer’s personal style, work-life balance, and the area of law in which they’re choosing to practice. The team discusses problems and solutions they’ve come up with in their process of starting their own practices, which Hall says creates a relaxed and comfortable learning environment, even in the time of COVID where Zoom meetings are a necessary evil.

“Every Monday, we try to get off to a really good start. We talked a lot about what was a success that you had last week, and an F-up that you learned from,” Hall says. “It’s kind of like creating a safe space on Zoom…even though I hate Zoom because it’s harder to bond.”

Giving A Helping Hand

 

But Hall, who is a practicing solo attorney herself, still insists on being more than just a face on a computer screen for the lawyers in the incubator, many of whom have never been to court before joining the program. Whether it’s making herself available to help look up necessary documents for her cohort members or field frantic phone calls about how to handle their first trials in a socially distanced setting, Hall and her fellow coaching attorneys at LAIC are happy to be on call for their new solos when it matters most, though she says most of them seem to know what they’re doing pretty early on.

The other benefit of an incubator for new lawyers beyond just the opportunity to get practice in everyday lawyering is using the time before starting a practice to solidify what your specialty should be without feeling the pressure to conform to an area you’re not really interested in.

“It’s important to take the time to find the right fit for you as a lawyer, and we give them that chance,” Hall said. “If you’re not intentional about it you can just [end up taking] the path of least resistance and then suddenly you’re making like $250,000 a year and hate your job.”

The Birth of Legal Incubators

 

Though the ethos of the legal incubator sounds tailor-made for 2021, the model has actually been around for more than a decade. The first legal incubator was founded by Fred Rooney in 2007 at the City University of New York School of Law (CUNY Law) in response to a crisis in access to civil justice within low-income areas in and around New York City.

Today, there are over 60 legal incubators nationwide and 11 in California, including the Bay Area Legal Incubator (BALI), the Legal Entrepreneur Assistance Program in Orange County and many others across the state.

The need for incubators became even greater during the pandemic, not only because of the public difficulties of affording legal help without steady income, but due to a crop of new lawyers who’ve struggled to find work as firms have scaled back on hiring new attorneys. Some law grads emerged from law school with a diploma only to find their offers from law firms had been put on hold or rescinded altogether.

“Employers are just less able to project their needs at this point so I think they’re a little more hesitant than they normally would be especially at this point in time since they just instituted another lockdown. I think that also gives some of the firms pause when it comes to hiring,” said Jolene Horn, associate director of career development at Loyola Law School.

Prior to the birth of LAIC in 2014, there was a call for proposals to develop legal incubators that could take new attorneys after the last economic crash of  2009, which dealt a devastating blow for employers of law firms big and small.

“So it was like hey, let’s just help, let’s give a boost to new lawyers who want to go in to help some of these people who can’t get, like, a family law lawyer, or need to talk to someone about their mortgage,” Hall said. The need for these basic retail services as well as other common areas of law like wills and trusts became the premise behind starting the LAIC when it was founded in 2015.

Building Careers From the Ground Up

 

For the last six years, Hall says the mentality of the gig economy has crept into the legal profession, as more and more new attorneys have come up without the comfort of a traditional career path and may be looking for flexibility and work-life-balance in their job descriptions.

“When the pandemic hit I was like, ‘Wow I’m kind of glad that I’m not working at a firm right now, I feel more in control of my life,’” Hall said. “It is scary but we’re used to uncertainty. Like we’re used to not having that steady paycheck so we always have to hustle.”

These incubators have also opened up the field to a wider swath of lawyers from all racial, ethnic and gender backgrounds. Out of approximately 70 lawyers that the LAIC has coached, 24 of them have spoken different languages, including Nigerian languages, five different Asian languages, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, Russian, German, and more.

“The profession itself is right now, 86% white,” Hall says. “So, that doesn’t leave a lot of space in big law firms. It’s just very traditional.”

For Micheli Quadros, an LAIC alum who now specializes in immigration law and tenant defense, LAIC was the perfect door to the legal profession that gave her a chance at a second career when she came out of law school in 2018. Prior to her dreams of becoming a lawyer, Quadros, a Brazilian immigrant, worked in customer service in the hotel industry at the Marriott and the Ritz Carlton.

Though her immigrant background sparked her desire to learn immigration law and got her through law school, she didn’t know much about starting her own business. In the program she got a grasp on everything from opening business bank accounts to getting the right insurance and handling clients.

”Maria said you don’t have to say ‘yes’ always when someone wants to hire you. That’s something I always kept in mind when you give a consultation. You have to assess not only if the client wants to hire you but whether or not you want to be hired by the client,” Quadros says.

Today, not only has Quadros launched her practice in the cohort focused on serving people of lower and middle incomes, but after seeing the huge need for free and low-cost legal services among the immigrant population (and also tenants) she was inspired to form a nonprofit called Angelenos Reunited so she can provide free services. She also hosts the LAIC “hub space” out of her office because she is such a believer in the program, describing it as more like a family than anything else.

“Some people might be a little overwhelmed starting a business if this is their first career, but if you’re going to do it, LAIC is the way to go because you have so many people to talk to about your struggles, your fears, your successes, and you’re not alone,” Quadros said. “You learn that you have other people that went through the same things or are going through the same things and you have that family support in a way.”

The Key Is Keeping an Open Mind

 

With the beginning of a new cohort days away, Hall says success stories like Quadros’ are proof that the passion of a bright attorney can be molded into greatness in the learning process when given a nurturing place to refine their skills and assess what they want out of the profession and who they would want to help the most. The goal, of course, is to walk out of the incubator with a much better idea about that than when they went in.

“Occasionally, somebody knows exactly what they want to do with it,” Hall said. “But as they start practicing, more often they realize, ‘Wow I really don’t enjoy that. But I enjoy this  more.’”

Hall told a story of one law school grad who came in wanting to do entertainment law and just by chance volunteered on a domestic violence case. It turned out she loved family law, which is the area she practices in today.

“So, she found out he actually really enjoys something else. That’s the thing I try to tell people — just keep an open mind,” Hall said. “Because nothing is wasted either. And whatever happens, you’re still learning. So even if you try some areas, even if it doesn’t always work out, you’re still learning constantly.”

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