Law Schools, Pro Bono, Public Interest, Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners, Ted Frank

Why Do ‘Low Bono’ for Others When You Can Start Your Own Non-Profit Law Firm?

With unemployment rates still high for new law school grads, incubator programs sponsored by law schools and bar associations are gaining traction. Not to be confused with the profit-generating incubators common in the business and start-up world, the law school incubator concept, conceived by Fred Rooney at CUNY Law School, subsidizes new law school grads to start their own practices to  provide “low bono” legal services.

In exchange for deeply discounting their fees, grads receive low-cost rent and training from more experienced attorneys. After 12-18 months in the incubator, these now practice-ready lawyers can move on to a position at a non-profit or continue to operate their firms on their own. Since the first law school incubator launched back in 2007, nearly two dozen others have cropped up at law schools and bar associations across the country.

What should we make of this trend?

Though I certainly applaud all efforts to help new grads find training and work, I’ve often wondered about the success of incubators for the long haul. After all, will lawyers accustomed to the steady stream of low-bono clients and subsidized rent be prepared to market for paying clients when they leave the comfort of the incubator? Moreover, while some law schools are shelling out substantial sums to support incubators (Arizona State, for example, plans to spend $5 million on a law school clinic), much of those dollars go to support full-time faculty to oversee the clinic and not to debt-ridden students who ultimately do the work at cut rates.

So rather than do low-bono work for others, why not start your own non-profit legal services group? There are plenty of foundations, like the Legal Services Corporation or state programs (such as the D.C. Bar Foundation), that fund non-profit legal groups, and many are interested in new ideas such as ways to use to technology to expand access to law. In addition to grant funding, there are also crowd-funding platforms like Indiegogo that help non-profits raise money.

There are a couple of examples of newer lawyers who have successfully started non-profits. Consider, for example, Philadelphia-based attorney Michael Lee, who just a few years out of Drexel Law School co-founded Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity and now serves as its Executive Director and Supervising Attorney.  A few years back, ATL reported about Ted Frank’s experience creating a nonprofit, public-interest law firm, the Center for Class Action Fairness. And over at MyShingle, I reported on attorney Scott Levine who fulfilled a dream of starting public interest firm when he launched the Stein Center in 2006.

There are plenty of resources for starting a non-profit available on-line, such as GrantSpace.Org and National Council of NonProfits. Even the IRS has guidelines on public interest firms on-line. In fact, there are even two free sample business plans for non-profit firms available here and here.

And if you’re still stumped after that… well, you could always seek low-bono help from a local law school incubator.

Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.

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