Last week, the University of Massachusetts School of Law-Dartmouth joined the growing list of law schools hiring their own graduates through incubators. Located in Boston’s Financial District, UMass’ Justice Bridge center will provide legal fees on a sliding scale to help people who can’t afford representation from a typical Boston law firm. Perhaps more importantly, the incubator will also hire UMass grads who want to start solo practices (which is often code for “couldn’t find jobs”) or public interest practices.
The practice of law schools hiring their own recent graduates has been widespread for a while. When the National Association of Law Placement crunched the data on the Class of 2009, it found that 42% of law schools engaged in this practice. It seems a little shady on the surface, but if grads get paid experience and schools get to increase their chances of going up in the U.S. News rankings, who’s really losing out?
The City University of New York School of Law became the first school to create an incubator back in 2007. The Incubator for Justice program’s purpose was to teach lawyers how to work with underprivileged clients. Since the Great Recession started—and since the employment rate for law school graduates began to dip—several schools have followed suit. They’re often lesser-known institutions, like Pace Law School in New York (the state), the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, and Widener University School of Law in Pennsylvania.
Still, some bigger names have joined the fray, too: In 2013, Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, ranked No. 31 by U.S. News, opened an actual law firm, complete with partners and associates.
Nine law grads—eight from UMass, and one from the Northeastern University School of Law—will work at Justice Bridge for six months as part of the incubator’s pilot program, according to the Boston Business Journal. Justice Bridge is hoping to open a second location closer to UMass in January.
The graduates will be able to earn about $50,000 a year. Once the pilot program is done, they’ll be required to pay $500 a month to cover the office space and gain access to business referrals. That amounts to handing over $6,000 a year. At first take, it might sound like a lot, but Len Zandrow, the incubator’s executive director, told the Boston Business Journal that the rent for the office space is actually much, much higher than what the graduates will be paying. To run, Justice Bridge will need to raise another $50,000 every year.
Paying $6,000 a year is also probably better than going solo with no help. Graduates will have to make a two-year commitment to Justice Bridge, but it’s a loose one—they’ll be able to leave if they find other jobs. The incubator will also give them the opportunity to meet mentors, such as retired judges and experienced partners from Boston law firms. Will this one day be the law school version of a residency period? If bleak employment statistics continue, it could—and that might not be such a bad thing.