The UMass School of Law at UMass Dartmouth announced today the launch of a law incubator focused on bringing quality, affordable legal services to clients with unmet legal needs. The "Justice Bridge" incubator is designed to provide quality legal representation to clients who cannot afford traditional market rates, while supporting recent UMass Law graduates who wish to develop solo, small firm or public interest practices.
"Justice Bridge is a perfect opportunity for UMass Law and UMass Law is the perfect home for Justice Bridge," said UMass Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek. "As the Commonwealth's public law school, UMass Law is committed to improving access to justice in the state and to preparing our students to practice as justice-centered lawyers. The worth of our justice system depends on our ability to make quality legal representation accessible for people in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure, their apartments to eviction, or their children in custody battles."
"Ultimately, Justice Bridge is about restoring hope—hope for new attorneys questioning their job prospects and hope for persons fearing that legal advice was beyond their means," said Justice Bridge Executive Director Len Zandrow. "The program is built on the zeal of its attorneys, the latest developments in technology, the experience of its mentors, and our community's collaborative spirit. Justice Bridge strives to coordinate with bar associations, legal service providers, law firms and community organizations to help deliver quality, affordable representation, while reducing the growing number of individuals representing themselves in our family, housing and probate courts."
The incubator, located at 274 Franklin Street, Boston seeks to develop new models for employing recent law school graduates and delivering legal services to clients of modest means. The concept was on the agenda at a recent national conference in Kansas City co-sponsored by UMass Law, the University of Missouri School of Law and the Kauffman Foundation. The major components of this model will be unveiled for the greater Boston legal community on July 31 at the UMass Club in Boston.
In addition to providing much-needed legal services and launching graduates' careers, Justice Bridge will serve as a laboratory for research into best practices, trends, and resources for creating an economically viable model for the delivery of legal services to moderate means clients. The Boston site was chosen due to its proximity to lawyers, mentors, legal service providers,and community groups that have committed to the experiment. UMass Law, through its multiple clinics and outreach initiatives, is working to address similar issues in southeastern Massachusetts. Organizers are actively exploring the launch of an additional incubator on the South Coast.
According to data from the American Bar Association, only 56 percent of law graduates in the Class of 2012 nationwide had full-time, long-term employment requiring bar passage. Justice Bridge offers UMass Law graduates new legal employment opportunities, in addition to a practical skills-based curriculum. Participants in the incubator will also receive shared, furnished office space in downtown Boston, referrals of legal business, counseling from experienced mentors and peers, practical business skills training, access to support staff, use of a web site and access to a developing technological platform.
While the employment of recent law graduates is an emerging issue in the higher education and legal communities, the issue of underrepresentation of those in need of legal services is longstanding. According to a report released in 1998 by a Boston Bar Association Task Force, in some Massachusetts counties, more than 75 percent of the cases in Probate and Family Courts have at least one party unrepresented. Through Justice Bridge, UMass Law graduates and the greater legal community will strive to meet many of these unmet legal needs.
Justice Bridge is developing a business niche among existing legal service providers and bar associations. Clients will generally have an annual income of no more than 250-300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (approximately $60,000 for a family of four). The expectation is that clients will pay modest retainer fees and a scaled average of $50 per hour for legal services.
Fluency in foreign languages will play a significant role in the program's community outreach. Lawyers in Justice Bridge's pilot program may 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. For clients' convenience, the incubator will also offer evening and weekend hours.
Members will represent clients in a wide variety of civil matters. The incubator will not, however, refer any cases involving criminal law. Practice areas of special concentration include: family law, housing, probate, employment, consumer law, and immigration. There is also interest in developing a concentration meeting the needs of small business owners.
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.