Editor’s note: The following column also appears in the January 2018 issue of the Texas Bar Journal.
Did you know that the State Bar of Texas will soon have one of the largest legal incubators anywhere? And that the program is helping not only new attorneys but also people who normally can’t afford legal services?
The State Bar launched the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator, or TOJI, in April 2017 under the superb leadership of Immediate Past President Frank Stevenson. Its mission is to expand access to justice for low- and moderate-income Texans by helping new lawyers establish sustainable practices that serve this population.
Two cohorts of 10 attorneys each are now participating in the 18-month program, which operates out of co-working office space near the University of Texas at Austin campus. When the third cohort begins in April, TOJI, with 30 attorneys, will be one of the largest legal incubators of the nearly 70 programs operating worldwide.
Incubator participants aren’t State Bar or TOJI employees. They establish independent practices while receiving training in business operations, marketing, and client relations. They also provide at least 100 hours of pro bono legal assistance during their first 12 months in the program.
Our incubator is already producing success stories. Here’s what members of our inaugural cohort had to say:
- Basic legal services should be available to anyone regardless of income. TOJI is an important step in bridging the wide gap between the legal profession and underserved communities. —Andrew Bernick
- TOJI gave me the confidence to take risks with unconventional billing practices, which I hope take off because so many people can’t afford traditional attorneys’ fees. —Sarah J. Kelly
- I appreciate the creative energy that drives the program and the opportunities it provides to collaborate with other like-minded attorneys and local experts as we learn from each other, create together, and experiment with new ways to address the justice gap in Texas. —Carolyn Cadena
- TOJI empowers entrepreneurs like me to develop new and sustainable models of legal practice to reduce costs and expenses while still providing high-quality and affordable legal services. —Mario Cantu
- This program has continued to inspire and empower me to use my legal skills for the good of our community. —Claire Vaho
Clearly, TOJI is making a difference in the lives of these attorneys and the clients they serve. We are also working to establish a model and curriculum for similar incubator programs throughout Texas.
Incubators aren’t a cure-all for closing the justice gap, but they do play a role, according to the Texas Commission to Expand Civil Legal Services. The Texas Supreme Court created the commission in 2015 to study ways to expand access to the civil justice system, and its December 2016 report encouraged the court to support and promote existing and new legal incubators, among other recommendations.
According to the report, incubators “can meet the needs of some clients and some new law-school graduates; they can teach lawyers how to make a living serving modest-means clients; and they can serve as a visible reminder to the legal community that serving clients who are unable to pay full price ‘is a moral obligation of each lawyer as well as the profession generally.’”1
The deadline is January 5 to apply for the third TOJI cohort, which begins in March. Applications for the fourth cohort will be accepted starting in May. If you’re not a new lawyer (in your first five years of practice), you can still get involved with TOJI by volunteering as a mentor or speaker by filling out the form at txoji.com.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done so far and look forward to seeing more results as we work together to bridge the justice gap.
Executive Director, State Bar of Texas
Editor-in-Chief, Texas Bar Journal
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- Tex. Disciplinary Rules Prof’l Conduct pmbl. ¶ 6 ***.