An innovative law school program gives a group of new admittees office space and real-world experience under the guidance of former profs.
The Chicago-Kent College of Law is the first law school in the state with an incubator. And it's nurturing fledgling lawyers.
The school and its clinical professors are helping a select group of new attorneys build strong foundations to their legal careers by giving them a law office to call their own, real-life clients and cases, and some mentoring along the way.
Chicago-Kent launched its Solo & Small Practice Incubator in November with five recently admitted alumni-attorneys who are gaining experience with law firm management and marketing, client intake, billing practices, and litigation in their practice areas of choice.
Clinical Professor Richard J. Gonzalez said that, in the conceptual phase, the incubator sounded like more work for the clinical faculty on behalf of licensed attorneys who no longer paid tuition to the school. He said it had a chilling effect on his colleagues when Dean Harold Krent first proposed the project several months ago.
"He got quite a bit of push-back. It got a lukewarm reaction from the clinical professors," Gonzalez said. "They were saying 'isn't this just more work for me?'"
Gonzalez said the dean "went ahead with it anyway," and, now that the program is up and running, he finds the new relationship with his old students a boon to the legal clinics and its clients.
Win-win for school, program participants
The incubator is currently limited to a handful of recent Kent-grad applicants, but there is room to grow and Gonzalez is confident that more recent grads will be admitted to the program in future years.
"It's helping them build up a practice and get comfortable in their careers, and to me, I don't mind taking time to mentor a new lawyer because they're helping me, too," Gonzalez said. "They are lawyers, they can attend status calls for you, they can prepare motions, handle discovery…this is a win-win if you ask me."
Gonzalez is one of two faculty members assigned to Chicago-Kent's employment discrimination/civil rights litigation clinic, through which he maintains an active employment-law practice on behalf of plaintiffs. Many of his clients, and those served by other practicing professors, call Chicago-Kent for help finding low-cost or pro bono lawyers.
The clinics take on new clients based on the number of faculty members who can manage the cases and the number of students enrolled to assist them. Gonzalez said the incubator enables the school to refer prospective clients to sole practitioners with a strong connection to the school, which results in more Chicago-Kent alumni doing legal work after graduation and more people obtaining legal services through the clinics. And the incubator-program enrollees help out in the clinic as well.
In addition to these referrals from the school's clinics, the new lawyers receive free office space in the law school's Chicago campus, along with access to Westlaw and Lexis, copy machines, alumni mentors, and the school's entire law library.
"It's pretty much the same perks we professors get, except they have to pay for their own malpractice insurance," Gonzalez said. "The idea is that in a year it will help them make the transition into going out and opening their own offices - hanging their own shingle.…In exchange, they give us up to 10 hours a week of assisting with our [clinic] cases, which has been fabulous."
Taking 'my skills to another level'
Since the program started this fall, Gonzalez has been working with and mentoring 2010 Chicago-Kent grad Jaz Park, who shares the professor's interest in employment law and is already handling cases alongside him.
Park is in her second career as an attorney, having worked for the government as an IT specialist prior to law school. She has specific ideas about what she wants to accomplish in her life as a lawyer, and she said the incubator is already helping her reach those goals.
As an Asian-American, Park said she wants to fill a void in Chicago by reaching out to the Asian community as one of the few lawyers representing plaintiffs in employment litigation. In addition to the general experience she is gaining by assisting Gonzalez with his cases, Park said the mentoring aspect of the incubator is helping her learn ways to promote herself to a targeted audience.
"I have a community-based marketing vision to offer my employment-law services to two key demographics.…That really requires my own solo practice to be able to direct my marketing," Park said. "I don't really fit anywhere else and I don't necessarily have the skills [yet] to support my vision, but the school, and working with Professor Gonzalez, has really bolstered my skills to another level."
Having been a licensed attorney for two years already, Park knows it's not easy starting a solo practice immediately after law school. But thanks to this new program, she is getting the legal work she needs to keep her busy, and the support from veteran attorneys and scholars to get the job done right.
"I believe you have to have some fortitude and knowledge and the legal wherewithal to stick with it. It's tough, you know, running your own law office," Park said. "But I've been really fortunate to have a clinical professor whose practice area fits so well with mine.…If Professor Gonzalez had a court call, I would drop anything to fill in for him in a pinch."
According to Professor Gonzalez, the enthusiasm and abilities of a young lawyer like Park not only help him handle his own cases, but also help him motivate and teach his students.
"We've only been doing this for a month or so, but Jaz has been working with my students and taking cases for my clients," Gonzalez said. "She's really aggressive and doing all the right things as a new lawyer."