Goals include confronting unmet civic legal needs, providing mentorship and employment for new attorneys, creating a new financial model for law practices, and refining law school curriculum
Following a highly successful launch of its Justice Bridge law practice incubator in Boston nine months ago, the School of Law at UMass Dartmouth is expanding the innovative program to New Bedford and Taunton. The expansion is made possible by a three-year $225,000 grant from the Bristol County Savings Bank. Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Ralph D. Gants visited the New Bedford office today meeting with UMass Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek, Justice Bridge Executive Director Len Zandrow, University of Massachusetts Trustee MarDee Xifaras, and Justice Bridge attorneys and mentors.
The goals of Justice Bridge, one of the first law practice incubators of its kind in the country, are to:
- provide mentors, office space, technology, and support staff for newly minted attorneys to launch their own successful small and solo practices.
- explore creative strategies to provide discounted, quality legal help to individuals and small businesses with previously unmet needs, especially in matters involving housing, child custody, debt consolidation and other civil cases.
- test new methods for making legal representation more affordable and accessible.
- refine UMass Law's curriculum in response to lessons learned.
"The Bank is proud to support the School of Law at UMass Dartmouth in the efforts to expand the innovative Justice Bridge incubator to New Bedford and Taunton," said Patrick J. Murray, Jr., President and CEO of Bristol County Savings Bank and President of the Bristol County Savings Charitable Foundation. "By providing mentors, office space, technology and support staff, law school graduates will learn how to establish their own practices and then gain experience by providing legal services to a large number of individuals and small businesses in Southeastern Massachusetts who are currently unrepresented by legal counsel due to economic constraints."
The Boston office of Justice Bridge opened at 67 Batterymarch Street last August and hired nine lawyers, mostly graduates of UMass Law, and has processed more than 500 client matters. The New Bedford office is located at 257-259 Union Street, and has hired 8 additional attorneys, mostly UMass Law graduates. Some of those attorneys will spend 8 hours a week at a Taunton office located across the street from the new court house. An Open House of the New Bedford location is being scheduled to take place later this Spring.
"UMass Dartmouth is distinguished by its engagement in the issues that shape the social and economic fabric of our communities and the Commonwealth," UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Divina Grossman said. "Justice Bridge provides our law school graduates with opportunities to use the excellent education they received at UMass Law to expand justice while learning from seasoned attorneys."
"When Justice Bridge was first launched, we saw it as the perfect opportunity to connect new and eager attorneys to help serve individuals and families who are underrepresented in important legal matters," said Law School Dean Mary Lu Bilek. "As the Commonwealth's only public law school, we prepare our students to be justice-centered lawyers ready to practice across Massachusetts. We are very excited for the expansion of this incubator to launch the careers of our graduates in solo practice who aim to provide quality, affordable legal representation accessible to more residents of the Commonwealth."
"This is a very exciting time for Justice Bridge and legal incubators across the country," said Justice Bridge Executive Director Len Zandrow. "We have seen tremendous support from the legal community. The network of mentors, bar associations, legal service providers, law firms and community organizations is rapidly growing."
The Boston site was chosen due to its proximity to lawyers, mentors, legal service providers, and community groups that have committed to the program. Similar thoughts went into deciding the location for Justice Bridge's SouthCoast office.
"Justice Bridge is addressing access to justice, a very important need in the legal community," said one of Justice Bridge's resident mentors, retired Judge Lloyd Macdonald, who served as the regional administrative justice of Bristol County Superior Court in 2012 and 2013. "The expansion into the SouthCoast is coming at a very important time and I look forward to working with more young, emerging attorneys to help them build their careers and open more avenues for individuals in need of legal representation."
According to a 2014 Report of the Boston Bar Association Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, 33,000 low-income Massachusetts residents were denied the legal aid of an attorney in matters involving eviction, foreclosure, and family law. Eighty percent of cases involving family law and 70 percent of employment and consumer cases were turned away by traditional legal aid services. The rate was 56 percent for housing matters. In Bristol County, as many as 90 percent of the litigants appearing in housing court cases are not represented by counsel.
"To work in such a collaborative and supportive, justice-centered environment provides a uniquely valuable opportunity for me and fellow Justice Bridge attorneys," said new attorney Michael Coveney. "The foundation of what we do is restoring hope for persons fearing that legal assistance was beyond their means. Justice Bridge is on the move to make access to justice a reality."
Justice Bridge aims to serve clients of modest means-individuals and small businesses that do not qualify for free legal services, but cannot afford market rates. All prospective clients are screened for income eligibility. Organizers have consulted with the local bar associations and legal service providers. If it were not for the program's discounted rates, the clients served would typically not receive any legal representation. "Our goal is not to drive down the cost of existing legal services or compete for current clients," said Bilek. "Our goal is to expand services and reach a segment of the market whose needs have not previously been met."
Lawyers in Justice Bridge's program offer their clients legal assistance on a regular, scheduled basis in as many as eight languages other than English including: Arabic, Creole, French, Nepali, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Tibetan. The incubator offices also offer evening and weekend hours.
UMass Law, the only public law school in Massachusetts, was established in 2010 to provide a high quality, affordable legal education focused on creating justice-centered lawyers. UMass Law is especially committed to increasing the diversity of those who practice law in the Commonwealth and encouraging students to become professionally engaged in their community through clinics and internships while they study.