Bridging the gap

What can the UK legal system learn from the Chicago Bar Foundation’s innovative Justice Entrepreneurs Project?

The American Bar Association Conference (ABA) was held recently in Chicago. 

In addition to providing the opportunity to attend a vast array of talks and discussions on a huge range of legal issues, the event provides an opportunity to meet representatives of the local Bars and to get to know how they are approaching the challenges faced by all of us who provide legal services, wherever in the world we operate.

What is the Justice Entrepreneurs Project?

I wanted to tell you about the “Incubator Programme” run by the Chicago Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar Association. The programme is also called the “Justice Entrepreneurs Project” (JEP). In essence, it is an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. In the first place, it is designed to provide a route into the law for law graduates who cannot find a place in practice with an established law firm. The US suffers the same difficulties as the UK in the sense that there are far more people graduating in law and obtaining professional qualifications than there are places available for them in chambers or law firms. In the second place, its objective is to bridge the gap in the provision of legal services between those on very low incomes who, even in the US, have some legal aid available to them, and the wealthy, who can afford to pay for legal services personally. A void which also exists in the UK now that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) has wreaked its effects.

The Foundation has office space in the middle of the city of Chicago. It is near the high rise, glitzy and marble-encrusted office buildings from which more established legal operations are conducted. It is not miles out of the way in a depressed suburb of the city. I think that is really important because it demonstrates that this is not merely a vanity project for the Chicago Bar, but is part of mainstream legal activity. On the other hand, the space occupied by the project is very down to earth. It comprises a loft-style, open plan space, in which there are rows of desks separated by frosted glass partitions. Each work-space has a mobile phone and laptop charger but there are no land lines. Mailboxes consist of tupperware containers stacked on a cart in the corner of the collaborative space. There is one conference room and one photocopier. There is also a stripped down kitchen space and an understanding that those who use the space clean up after themselves.

There are no reception staff and no legal assistants. Instead, there is one director, Taylor Hammond, whose role it is to lead and oversee all aspects of the JEP. Before he moved to JEP, Taylor was general counsel to a start-up developer of a renewable energy company and before that he practised at DLA Piper as a property lawyer. He is therefore very well placed to help the programme participants in all aspects of their work. As Taylor has said: “We wanted to have a space that had good energy and vibe to it…it fosters collaboration and fits with the theme of the programme, which is to find innovative ways of practising and sharing ideas and determining ways to provide affordable legal services to people.” Having seen the project offices, I think it meets the requirements extremely well.

How does the system work?

Turning to the way in which the project works, each intake consists of 10 recent graduates. They are selected by means of a competitive application process, which is designed to identify those individuals with the necessary commitment and entrepreneurial skills needed to achieve success in solo practice. The programme lasts for 18 months in total. During the first six months, the participants must perform 20 hours of pro bono work per week. The idea is that this will permit them to establish connections with the pro bono and legal aid communities in their areas, will help them to develop a clear understanding of the spectrum of legal needs and services for low and moderate-income clients and help them to gain experience and skills in relevant practice areas. During that initial period, they also receive training from subject matter experts in law and the development of client development but also, and critically in my view, in taxation as applied to small businesses, business skills, marketing and accounting. In other words, all the practical advice needed to set up and run a small business.

As the participants move through the programme, they receive mentored support from experienced lawyers operating their own small practices. In addition, they are permitted to use the project offices from which to run their fledgling practices. Resources for online legal research have been donated by the publishers, as has practice management software – which it is a condition of being on the programme – that they use. They can use the project space for client conferences and this relieves the participants, at least in the earlier stages, of the need to rent their own premises from which to practise.

Type of law

The type of law practised by graduates of the scheme is very much what you would expect. They are involved in family, housing and small community business matters. In addition, there are immigration practitioners and I would expect, were there to be any similar system in England and Wales, it would cover all the areas of law in which legal aid was removed by LASPO.

Fees

There is no fee for the participants during the first six months of the scheme. During the remaining 12 months of the project, there is a participation fee, which includes rent for the shared office space, of $300 per month.

Effectiveness of the project

The first group of participants began their course in June 2013. It is therefore very early days to judge the effectiveness of the programme. However, during my visit to the project, I spoke to young lawyers who had completed the course and were in private practice on their own accounts. While none underestimated the difficulties involved in starting up their own law firms in difficult times, each was enthusiastic about the opportunity that the project had provided them with to make a career in the law which, had the project not existed, they could never have achieved.

Could it work in the UK?

Before I discuss some of the obvious differences there are in the regime of training between the US and England and Wales, I think it is worth just a few words about the cultural differences there are between our two jurisdictions insofar as they have a bearing on whether a scheme such as this could, albeit in a modified form, be brought into use on this side of the Atlantic.

No-one should be in any doubt, I think, that the US still has much more about it of the hard-edged entrepreneurial spirit than do we. In addition, it is a concomitant of the “can do” approach that there will be casualties along the way. I think Americans are much less bothered than we are about the risks and consequences of failure and are much more focused on the prospects of success of any project such as the JEP. I find it heartening to hear of barristers branching out into new business models and taking novel approaches to the delivery of their work, and at the Bar Council we are trying to support that. However, I believe there is room for a lot more innovation. Even the Legal Services Board (LSB) has stated in its strategic plan that a priority is to “break…down regulatory barriers to competition, growth and innovation”.

It is important to recognise, of course, that there are very big differences between the system of qualification in England and Wales and in Illinois. In the first place, there is no system of pupillage or a training contract as such. Nor is there any requirement for a period of supervised practice before a new entrant to the profession is permitted to set up on their own as a deliverer of legal services. The position is that, as soon as the young lawyer has passed their state bar exams, they are permitted to set up in practice as a sole practitioner.

Having said all that, are there not lessons we can learn from this project?

One thing is clear. We must always be looking for innovative ways of developing law as a career and for providing legal services. The Chicago Bar Association has given a real lead in seeking to fulfil both objectives by their support for the JEP.

Alistair MacDonald QC, Chairman of the Bar

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