The Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator’s fourth cohort met for orientation on January 28 at the Texas Law Center, where the program’s nine newest lawyers came ready to learn innovative ways to close the access to justice gap.
The program, known as TOJI, runs 18 months, during which attorneys with fewer than 5 years’ experience not only learn from TOJI Director Anne-Marie Rábago and her staff ways to best serve low- and modest-income Texans, but also bounce ideas off each other on points such as marketing, and payments or finding ones.
“I really wanted to get into a space where I can make a big impact,” Austin-based attorney Alex Shahrestani said. “What area of law could I be most beneficial to?”
Shahrestani, a University of Texas School of Law graduate, additionally pursued a computer science degree so he could focus on tech law. But his law program, he said, didn’t have a tech path built out for students, and he wanted an incubator experience that could guide him through running his own practice. It was through a professor in a professional responsibility class that Shahrestani heard about TOJI.
The first six months of the TOJI program serve as a business accelerator designed to quickly get the lawyers’ firms up and running. Each cohort spends the first three weeks (the boot camp phase) forming business plans and attending sessions that guide them on running a practice geared toward low- and modest-income Texans. Topics covered include business banking and required malpractice insurance. One early philosophical discussion the new group will have is just what is considered low- or modest-income as demographics shift over time.
“These are not low-income Texans,” said Mitchell Yager, a St. Mary’s University School of Law graduate and San Antonio-based attorney focused on probate law. “It’s the forgotten middle class we’re going after.”
Yager said he’s always been drawn to providing aid for small business owners, as someone interested in running one too. A person who owns a lawn mowing business is not just someone mowing lawns, but someone who has employees that need to be taken care of and who may have legal issues that need to be dealt with, he said.
Rábago and her staff select a new group of motivated attorneys every six months. Cohorts have a maximum of 10 attorneys, and at one time, when including all active groups, there can be a maximum of 30. Each participant is required to provide a minimum of 100 hours of pro bono legal services during his or her first year. Participants are encouraged to pursue pro bono service in their own areas of practice and in partnership with local and statewide pro bono organizations.
Alexandra Gullett, who trained as a barrister at the City Law School in London and earned an LLM from the University of Texas School of Law found out about TOJI during the program’s first cohort in 2017. She did litigation law for about a year before applying to and getting accepted into the program. Gullett, who enjoyed the “boutique experience” of litigation law—“clients are one-on-one with the attorney and can find out if they’re the right person for them”—now focuses on estate planning, tax law, civil litigation, and real estate law.
Getting to learn from people who have worked in these areas is a big draw.
“You’re not just doing this alone,” Gullett said. “You have people to talk to about business concerns or legal issues—without that support, I wouldn’t be able to start my own firm.”
For more information on applying to the July cohort of TOJI, go to txoji.com.