Photograph by Bill RichertOne block west of Chicago’s Loop, young entrepreneurs occupy a 4,300-square-foot open-plan office in a renovated old warehouse. They’re not hunched over laptops trying to code the next hot app. Instead, they’re scouring paperwork, helping people fight eviction, file divorces, write wills, or apply for citizenship.
“You know immediately when you walk in this place this is not your typical law office,” says Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation. That’s by design. The group launched the Justice Entrepreneurs Project, an incubator for young lawyers who want to run their own practices, last June.
The idea is to address two problems in America’s legal market. Law schools are graduating more lawyers than big firms want to hire. At the same time, what many attorneys charge for nuts-and-bolts legal services is too costly for many middle-class and working-class clients.
Taking a page from startup incubators in the tech industry, the bar foundation is recruiting young lawyers with an entrepreneurial bent to re-engineer the law firm business model.
The first group of 10 lawyers started the 18-month program last June, with another 10 rotating in every six months, for a total of 30 when it’s fully running. They spend the first six months of the program working with pro bono legal aid groups while setting up their own firms, subsidized with a monthly $1,000 stipend generally covered by their law schools. After that, they’re expected to bring in their own clients—and profitably manage their practices.
Nora Endzel applied to the Justice Entrepreneurs Project last year, straight out of DePaul University College of Law, before she had even gotten the results of her bar exam. Two months after getting her law license, she formed Endzel Law LLC, and landed her first paying client a month later.
“What surprised me the most was how quickly I was able to be successful—not that I’m rolling in money or anything like that,” Endzel says. Her family law practice has paid the bills since October. She’s got 10 paying clients and a half-dozen pro bono cases she’s still working on, from six months she spent at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services.
Figuring out what to charge has been a challenge, Endzel says. The lawyers in the Justice Entrepreneurs Project want to make enough to have sustainable practices (and pay their student loans), but they also want to keep their services affordable for clients of modest means. And it’s hard to tell what the going rate is, since many attorneys bill by the hour. “You can’t really Google around and see what people are charging for different services,” Endzel says.
She describes her clients as people working full time who “just can’t afford the uncertainty of $400 an hour forever to solve some sort of legal challenge.” Right now Endzel is working on flat-fee charges that range from $250 to $1,500, depending on the complexity of the case.
Glaves says the new firms can keep their services affordable with new billing structures, shared office space, and technology. He hopes the incubator will help participants think more like entrepreneurs. “They’ve learned a lot about the law in law school but not necessarily about how to run a practice or how to run a business,” Glaves says.