Before I decided to hang out my shingle as a solo-practice attorney, my background was in the corporate arena. While I found the work I was doing fulfilling, the lure of entrepreneurship was too much for me to let go. In addition to allowing me to focus my efforts on building my own future, going the solo route also meant I could focus on helping to build the futures of my clients in the right manner. Without pressure from legacy costs, entrenched ideologies, or other burdens often faced when entering established firms, I would be able to best serve my clients.
Coming from a Midwestern background and a blue-collar, humble immigrant family, I knew I wanted to use my law license as a way to build a positive future for those that sought my service. The right to practice law, to represent those seeking to build a future and to give a voice to others that have been wronged, is an honor and a privilege. I have been fortunate in my personal, educational, and professional background, to receive the tutelage of wonderful people. It is because of this background that I decided to focus my law practice on meeting the needs of low and moderate income individuals and small businesses in a sustainable way so that no one should feel their income level is a barrier to justice. As I began my practice, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into an incubator program that shared my professional beliefs, the Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP).
The JEP is the brain-child of the Chicago Bar Foundation. The genesis of the program came from an issue too many in the legal field have seen—meeting the legal need low and moderate income people face. The current traditional blanket methodology of the billable hour followed by most lawyers leaves an open-ended charge that most people within that low to moderate income demographic are uncomfortable accepting. Commonly referred to as the “justice gap,” these potential clients earn too much to qualify for free legal aid but not enough to afford traditional firm rates. This leads many to feel abandoned by the justice system and with little access to reliable and affordable assistance. As a result, more people are attending court without the legal help they need. This lack of access to affordable, competent counsel often leads to confusion, anger, and unjust outcomes. JEP was started with the aim of increasing aﬀordable, reliable legal services for low and moderate income people so as to improve access to justice in our community and help make the justice system more fair and eﬃcient for everyone.
The JEP is a legal incubator that enriches the entrepreneurial zeal and community-focused spirit of like-minded attorneys. Each small firm involved with JEP is an independent enterprise. It is important to note that JEP itself is not a law firm and is in no way involved with the operation of any of the attorneys that are a part of the program. What JEP is, however, is an incubator for recent law school graduates to start their own socially conscious law ﬁrms.
The goal is to expand legal services to low and moderate income people by developing innovative new models through which lawyers in solo or small practices can sustainably provide aﬀordable services to these clients. Members of JEP’s steering committee are esteemed members of the Chicago-area legal profession who have developed a program meant to enrich the experience and foster a positive foundation for those willing to accept and further the mission championed by the JEP. The first class of participant-lawyers began in June 2013. Applicants take part in a lengthy interview process with new classes entered every six months. The first class of attorneys has recently graduated and can be found operating in individual spaces across the Chicago-area.
In turn for participating in the JEP, lawyers in the 18 month program receive helpful privileges meant to aid in their practice’s development. The first six months of the program involves placement with one of several legal help partner agencies such as Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, Legal Assistance Foundation, or The Law Project. In addition, new participants volunteer at CARPLS as part of their pro-bono placement. The idea is to provide newer attorneys a structured approach to secure legal experience and a better understanding of the legal aid community and the legal delivery system. Further, participants are allowed the use of a shared office space that provides a professional and supportive atmosphere.
The JEP also has received substantial support from Chicago-area businesses that have rallied around the JEP mission and donated their time and services to help grow the program. Participants not only receive top-level training from mentors, but they also receive access to business consulting, legal management software, research databases, top-notch training, and access to a successful network of peer attorneys. These privileges would otherwise total a significant sum of money for anyone outside of the JEP.
I am a part of the fourth JEP class, having started in late 2014 and am steadily growing my practice. Legal industry or otherwise, starting a new venture is a very risky proposition. While the professional support that is a key part of the JEP has been outstanding, a new business owner should never underestimate the power of a positive environment. Just as technology incubators strive to attract similarly-minded enthusiasts in order to foster a collaborative atmosphere, the JEP is a hub of progressive legal action. The participants in the JEP are cognizant of the risk associated with running firms that diverge from well-worn billing practices, however, in order to fill the “justice gap,” these same attorneys are experimenting with new ways to leverage technology, use alternative fee arrangements, and embrace collaborative law.
Since JEP’s start, the public has taken notice of this innovative approach. This past February, the Chicago Bar Foundation received a two year, $400,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to support its JEP program. The grant was awarded through MacArthur’s Discovery Grants program, which funds exceptionally creative or innovative projects with high potential impact, but which do not fit into the Foundation’s existing programs and strategies.
I cannot express enough the thankfulness I have to everyone that has and currently is contributing to the JEP. From the steering committee, to its Director, the mentors, to the numerous vendors providing services, partner legal aid agencies, and other participant attorneys- absolutely everyone has been fantastic. What the JEP is attempting to do is audacious and this kind of evolution will take time, work, and diligence. Great things are being accomplished and even greater things will be because of the enthusiasm and drive of each and every person involved with the JEP. Here’s to the future.
For more information on the JEP, contact Taylor Hammond, Director, at (312) 546-9939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.