The lack of affordable legal representation in the state of Florida is astounding. The problem does not just affect low-income clients who are seeking legal aid assistance, but that problem extends to the middle class, where many clients still cannot afford legal representation to assist with their legal problems. The Access to Justice Committee of The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors has been reviewing various programs across the country in order to determine which program could be successful in Florida. The Legal Aid Society of Orange County’s Lawyer Entrepreneur Assistance Program (LEAP) is not only becoming a successful California program, but they are creating a model template for others to use in creating their own incubator projects.
An incubator project is designed to represent low and modest income clients with landlord-tenant, criminal, immigration, personal injury, and family law matters. Incubators meet the much needed demands of law school graduates having practice-ready skills and providing jobs to graduates. California’s LEAP benefits new attorneys in entering the practice of law as solo practitioners. It supports the new attorney in learning legal practical skills, such as the law and procedure, and well as practice management skills of getting new clients and learning when to end representation. LEAP is a joint venture that includes all four of Orange County’s American Bar Association-accredited law schools.
New attorneys in LEAP build their skills with in depth training sessions. They attend boot camp programs focusing on ethics and practice skills. Practicing attorneys and retired attorneys and judges provide mentorship. LEAP provides weekly case review sessions where mentors provide assistance to LEAP attorneys to solve their complex legal issues. LEAP attorneys are listed on the Legal Aid Society of Orange County’s lawyer referral service for free. This allows new attorneys to gain experience and learn to develop their own income stream. In addition, LEAP offers discount office space for participants to use. LEAP is funded through the Ford Foundation, the Public Welfare Fund, and the California Bar Foundation.
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga identified that “Florida needs a coordinated effort involving all of the entities with the potential to make permanent, systemic advances to ensure that access to justice in Florida is not limited to those who can afford it.” While we can identify that there is an access to justice problem, we cannot sit back and hope that legal aid societies will be able to assist all of the potential clients in Florida who need representation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers earn an average of approximately $63/hour. This means that a lawyer’s average hourly rate is eight times higher than the minimum wage in Florida. This also means that clients are at risk at losing their home, their job, and their family all because they cannot afford an attorney, Florida needs a better system.
The opportunity to consider and develop an incubator program is here. An incubator program could aid the access to justice problem by providing attorneys to low and modest income clients. Additionally, an incubator program would provide young lawyers with the skills needed to help clients with their legal problems, while providing the young lawyers with the ability to open and develop their own solo practice. Sometimes we just need to identify an opportunity and leap…
Kristina E. Feher lives in St. Petersburg, Florida and is the Managing Member of Feher Law, PLLC. She is one of the 6th Circuit representatives on the Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors.