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Program Helps Lawyers Set Up Shop In Underserved Areas

Imagine you’re fresh out of law school. Instead of going to work in a place where there are people to learn from and turn to for support, you’re a one-person firm on your own. 

A new program is helping young lawyers establish solo practices in hopes of helping both law school graduates and those who need legal services.

Inside her home office just off Bethel's main street, Vanessa Brown spreads a handful of green folders across the floor.  They represent some of the cases she’s taken in her first year of law practice. Like many first year jobs, it’s had rewards and its stresses.

“Sometimes I question whether or not this is something I really want to be doing,” she says. “Other times it seems like I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

"We have a lot of attorneys who are nearing retirement age...Many of them are in rural communities and they are sometimes the only attorneys there." - Mary Ashcroft, Vermont Bar Association

Brown says she’s not sure she would have made it without the assistance of a new program called the Lawyer Incubator Pilot Project.

The project is a collaboration between the Vermont Law School and the Vermont Bar Association.   

Mary Ashcroft of the bar association says its filling a number of needs. One is to make sure legal help is accessible.

“We have a lot of attorneys who are nearing retirement age, and who are retiring.  Many of them are in rural communities and they are sometimes the only attorneys there,” she says.

Another goal of the project is providing services to those who can’t afford a lawyer.

“There are an increasing number of people going to court without any representation and not so good results,” says Ashcroft, who also practices law in the Rutland area.

The young lawyers the project is helping are required to provide some free of charge pro bono services. The work also gives them experience. In addition, the lawyers perform what is called "low bono" work that pays them a limited amount for specific cases. 

Vanessa Brown says pro bono work is hard to take on while she’s building her practice and paying off school debt but she’s committed to providing the service. 

“Personally, before college and before law school I was very, very poor,” she says. “It just feels good to give back to people who are in similar situations.”

Kate Thomas, an incubator project lawyer in Rutland, is also trying to help clients by offering a flat fee for some services, rather than charging by the hour.

"Helping them to feel secure in that there's somebody who is advocating on their behalf makes me feel good." - new lawyer Erica Lewis

Thomas says it’s hard to imagine getting a solo practice off the ground without the support the incubator project provides.

“I would never, ever do this without some kind of supervision,” she says, explaining that the traditional route for law school graduates is to join a law firm. “The elder people at the firm take you under their wing and teach you the ropes.”

That route is not as available as it once was.

“There’s not a whole lot of hiring of new attorneys in the state of Vermont, yet every year the Vermont Law School graduates students who very much want to stay here,” says Margaret Barry, an associate dean at the law school.

Barry and Ashcroft are the team behind the incubator project.

Each week in a conference call they help the lawyers brainstorm legal questions. They’ve also organized sessions on managing a law practice.

Three recently-graduated lawyers were selected for this, the incubator project’s first year. Each will participate in the program for 18 months.

All three lawyers have come from out of state to settle in Vermont. Barry says each had to show in advance they had a plan for a viable practice.

“We want a business plan, we want you to be thinking of that business plan,” she says. “We want you to think about how you’re going to build your connections in the community. All of these pieces that we wanted to make sure were central as they launched themselves into practice.”

One of the exercises the lawyers have to complete is a scavenger hunt designed to help connect them to their community. Erica Lewis, the third incubator project lawyer, has joined the local Rotary in Randolph, where she is now practicing. 

She’s involved in a local church and is coaching soccer and track at one of the schools. 

Like the other two lawyers, Lewis works out of a home office to cut down on overhead. With less than a month in practice she taken on three cases so far.

“Helping them to feel secure in that there’s somebody who is advocating on their behalf makes me feel good,” she says.

Lewis also realizes that she has to watch her bottom line, which can be unnerving in these early days, when there’s not much coming in.

“Einstein said the only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once,” Lewis says. “I’m trying to keep that mantra in my mind and just be patient.”

That patience and optimism are what the incubator project hope to nurture in these and future law school graduates - to provide them with opportunities and clients with legal help.

The project also hopes to secure funding to sustain itself. A small grant went directly to the lawyers to help them establish offices, but the efforts of Ashcroft, Barry and others are not currently funded.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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