Seattle University School of Law’s Incubator Program
No shortage of lawyers exists for wealthy Americans in need of legal help. For those falling under poverty guidelines, pro bono attorneys or public defenders often step in. But what about those who land somewhere in between? As of 2017, roughly 2.22 million residents of Washington, or 30 percent of the population, were classified as being of moderate means, with incomes between 200 and 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). This category outnumbers low-income residents, who live under 200 percent of the FPL.
In response, a new trend has emerged: the affordable and accessible legal services practice, in which lawyers offer reduced fees and flexible representation options to low- and moderate-income clients. Seattle University School of Law’s Access to Justice Institute launched an innovative program in 2013 that helps prepare lawyers to reduce the justice gap. This program illustrates that lawyers can do well by doing good.
The Seattle University School of Law’s Incubator Program,1 now in its sixth year, offers financial assistance, continuing legal education, mentorship, and business support to a select group of graduates to help them launch and sustain a small-firm or solo practice. Each of these individuals commits to dedicate a portion of their practice to serving clients defined as having moderate means.
This year, the program has six participants, and 33 Seattle U Law alumni have now completed the program, continuing on to build small and solo law practices that handle everything from bankruptcy to immigration cases. A few incubator alumni, including Christopher Bhang and Josh Turkham (both 2016 alums), have gone on to be recognized as “Super Lawyer Rising Stars.”
Amy Wilburn Morseburg, a 2014 graduate of the law school and a “low bono” lawyer, compared the work of low bono attorneys to her former career in education. “When I was teaching, I had a special place in my heart for those ‘fall through the cracks’ kids – not the one failing out, not the ones excelling on their own, and not the special needs kids. There were services for all those folks,” she said. “It’s the steady C and D students, the ones just barely making it, who need an extra hand.”
One of Morseburg’s clients, for example, was a veteran who had a good job and a regular paycheck, but he was still living in his car because he couldn’t afford first and last months’ rent on an apartment. Aggressive creditors were garnishing his wages to repay debt he accumulated after being released from service in the United States Army.
“A friend referred him to me, and I offered him a 50-percent reduction in my fees. I was able to secure Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection for him,” she said. “Two weeks later, he was in an apartment, and he’s there to this day. He’s doing very well.”
Some large law firms have experimented with offering low bono services, but this corner of the legal market is largely filled by lawyers in solo or small practices. Seattle University’s School of Law fosters that. By offering vital assistance to recent graduates for a period of 12 months, the Incubator helps fledgling practices evolve into self-sustaining, thriving businesses.
Essential to the strength and success of the program is the mentorship of Stan Perkins, director of the Seattle University Incubator Program and “Super Lawyer.” He is a 1985 alumnus of the law school and a successful personal injury attorney in Seattle. His commitment and tremendous support helped to launch and sustain the Incubator. As a mentor for the incubator lawyers, Perkins offers guidance on the business side of lawyering and meets with the program participants regularly to encourage them and check on their progress.
The list of benefits offered to Incubator grantees is extensive and significant: office space in downtown Seattle, individual mentoring from attorneys, considerable practice experience in their subject matter area, peer support from others in this cohort, free subscriptions to case management software, and bi-monthly CLEs tailored to launching and sustaining a successful practice.
These sessions cover topics ranging from business management to marketing, from using social media to training in practice skills such as discovery and depositions. In addition, all practice areas are welcome. Past participants have specialized in everything from criminal defense, family law, consumer, estate planning, immigration, entertainment law, and personal injury, to name a few.
John Varga, a 2012 graduate of the law school who handles estate planning, said he tried operating his own law practice for a few months before he realized how insufficient his legal knowledge was without business smarts. Perkins helped him become a business owner in addition to being a lawyer.
“When we first started meeting with Stan, he mentioned that he was working on a redesign for his website,” Varga said. “I realized, ‘Wow, this guy’s been doing this for 30 years but he’s not complacent. He’s still tweaking things and trying to make his practice a little bit better every day.’ I learned that you have to wake up every day and figure out where the next client is going to come from.”
For Perkins, his involvement with the Incubator Program is an opportunity to shape the next generation of lawyers. “I have always been so grateful for the experienced lawyers who took time out of their busy schedules to mentor me when I first went out on my own 30 years ago. I really couldn’t have made it without them,” he said.
“So, the opportunity for me to help in this process and to encourage our grantees’ entrepreneurial spirit has been very rewarding.” In 2017, Perkins won the Washington State Bar Association’s APEX award for Legal Innovation for demonstrating leadership in promoting innovation in the practice of law through the Incubator Program.
Varga said an important part of being a low bono lawyer is learning how to keep your costs low. That includes using technology such as practice management software to replace the tasks usually done by staff at large law firms. His scheduling, for example, is done with a web-based calendar tool rather than by an assistant.
By restructuring their practices to accommodate moderate-income clients, Morseburg and Varga, as well as others engaging in work as low bono lawyers, may end up reshaping the legal industry. “There are too many lawyers and they’re all chasing the people who can pay full freight,” Varga said. “But the reality is that most people can’t afford that. I’m happy to be part of this group of lawyers recognizing the reality and trying to do something different. I don’t know what the future of law is going to look like, but I’m sure that if those of us working on it now develop thriving practices, then other people will imitate it.”
A 2015 study of civil legal needs in the state of Washington found that 7 in 10 low-income households face at least one significant legal problem each year and of that, each household averaged roughly nine legal problems a year. The number of civil legal problems has tripled since the last civil legal needs study in 2003. Most of these households – 76 percent – face those legal problems without the help of a lawyer. Low bono lawyers can help reduce this justice gap.
Seattle University is the only law school in the state to offer an incubator program. “As a Jesuit institution, we are committed to meeting the legal needs of under-served communities,” said Dean Annette Clark. “We’re also committed to helping our graduates pursue meaningful and gratifying work. This innovative program is a way to do both.”
Applications to the Incubator Program will open on October 1, with interviews in November. Invitations will be extended in the first week of December. For more information, please contact the Access to Justice Institute ([email protected]) or Stan Perkins ([email protected]).