Maya Zegarra graduated last year from the University of Baltimore School of Law and wants to practice immigration law, specifically humanitarian cases representing those seeking visas, special immigrant juvenile status or other means of remaining in the U.S.
“I know how hard it is and how traumatic of an experience it can be, and I really enjoy working with the immigrant community,” said Zegarra, a first-generation immigrant born in Peru.
Zegarra has worked for Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services as well as a private immigration law firm. But it was the announcement of the Law Entrepreneurs for Access Program — a legal incubator launched in January through a collaborative effort by nonprofit Civil Justice Inc., the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, UB Law and the Maryland State Bar Association — that motivated her to branch out on her own.
“I started to think, ‘Why not? What better way to open up my own firm than with the support of the bar foundation, the law schools and Civil Justice?’” Zegarra said. “I thought, ‘This is the perfect chance to try to do this.’ This is a way for me to give back to the community, as well, doing what I enjoy.”
There are at least 50 legal incubators in the U.S. registered with the American Bar Association, including “LEAP,” as the local program is known. About 19 percent of law schools across the country have an associated incubator, said Lynette Whitfield, a Rockville solo practitioner who also serves as LEAP’s program director.
“I see this as a national trend,” Whitfield said. “Five years ago, the number was much lower.”
Bridging the gap
Until this year, however there was not an incubator for law grads in Maryland. The idea for LEAP came to fruition through the MSBA’s Special Committee on Law School Graduates, on which the deans of both law schools served. The goal of the project is both to provide recent law graduates with support while they are finding their footing as attorneys as well as address the gap in access to legal help that leaves many low- and moderate-income people without representation.
“We’re trying to bridge the access to justice gap by helping people who don’t qualify for legal aid but can’t afford a full-priced attorney,” Whitfield said.
Zegarra is one of four attorneys taking part in the 12-month incubator project. Each participating attorney receives office space — Zegarra and another attorney are at UB Law, while the other two are based at UM Carey Law — as well as legal training, free web-based practice management software, a reimbursement of up to $500 for malpractice insurance, access to Lexis Advance, a one-year membership to MSBA and case-specific advice from Whitfield and other mentor attorneys.
Funding for the program came from a Maryland Bar Foundation grant, as well as law school grants, and the MSBA donated free access to CLEs, she said.
“The law school is providing a lot of in-kind support, setting each one up with everything you need to have a functioning office, from Post-its and file folders to printing, faxing and scanning,” Whitfield said. “The business end is definitely the foreign aspect for a lot of lawyers — you’re taught the law and trial advocacy, not how to balance your books or market yourself.”
Each LEAP attorney has agreed to spend 50 percent of their billable hours on pro bono and reduced fee work for the first six months of the program, Whitfield said. After that point, the minimum is reduced to 25 percent of their billable hours, as they start to budget for their own office space and related expenses.
“One of the important aspects of the program is that we’re trying to teach them how to earn money while doing good work,” Whitfield said. “The program was designed so they would in their future practice see low bono or sliding scale work as something they will continue to do.”
Whitfield meets with the four attorneys each week to track their ongoing cases. The lawyers discuss their cases in general terms and troubleshoot difficulties they’ve encountered by bouncing ideas off each other, she said.
“They each have their own separate solo practice with their own branding and firm identity,” she said.
Each attorney has been marketing their practice in a different way, she added. Zegarra, for example, has been contributing to Somos Baltimore Latino, a local Spanish language publication, while others are focusing on blogs or other means of spreading the word about their firms.
Phillip Chalker, who graduated UM Carey Law in 2014 and worked for the Social Security Administration before joining LEAP, said he has been hesitant to heavily market his firm due to the influx of cases he’s received in the program’s first months.
“I’m still learning so much about being a lawyer and about the law, and the clients I’m getting right now, they’re taking up my time,” Chalker said. “I don’t want to market at this point; I just want to focus on the clients I have.”
Most of his cases fall under the consumer protection umbrella, as well as disability benefits. Chalker said that low bono cases make up a significant source of his income right now, in keeping with the focus of the program. In the future, he said he hopes to take on more pro bono environmental law cases.
“This is a wonderful way to help two individuals — the individual client and the new attorney – looking to start their own practice,” he said.
Both Chalker and Zegarra said they’ve begun to make plans for their transition out of LEAP as the halfway point of the program approaches.
“Probably from the first month or so, they have been talking about business plans. They are thinking proactively,” Whitfield said. “Our hope is they’ll have a big enough book of business that they’ll be able to afford office space, or, if they choose not to go solo, they’ll have the training and experience to go forth as a lateral hire.”
As for the future of LEAP itself, Whitfield said she is hopeful it will receive funding for a new crop of attorneys to join next year.
“It’s an innovative way for law schools to get their students trained and to impact the community,” she said.