Fred Rooney On Closing The Justice Gap With Incubators

By RJ Vogt | August 18, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

In 2007, Fred Rooney created the first legal incubator at City University of New York to help lawyers develop successful community-based practices. Twelve years later, there are more than 60 such incubators, and Rooney is on his way to launch another in Bulgaria.

On any given day, you might find Fred Rooney in the Dominican Republic, Pakistan or his hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Just last week, the 66-year-old called the "father of legal incubators" by the American Bar Association hopped aboard a flight to Bulgaria.

The man's wild travel schedule reflects the national and international interest in legal incubators, Rooney's brainchild, since he helped launch the nation's first at City University of New York in 2007.

The basic concept is simple: lawyers who want to serve low- and middle-income people often need help getting community-based practices up and running. Incubators provide that help via subsidized office space, resources and amenities as well as business and legal skills development.

A dozen years after Rooney came up with the first model, more than 60 incubators similar to CUNY's have sprung up in 33 states and across four countries. Much of the growth can be traced to his relentless advocacy for increasing access to justice by helping people "do well by doing good."

In 2012, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant to set up an incubator in the Dominican Republic, and from 2014 to 2018 he served as a Fulbright Specialist on a similar project in Islamabad, Pakistan, that focused on women's access to legal support.

This month he embarked on his latest Fulbright Scholar grant, a project to set up a legal incubator to help Roma lawyers in Sofia, Bulgaria, practice public interest law in their community. Before he left, Rooney sat down with Law360 to discuss how legal incubators can be a crucial component in closing the justice gap at home and abroad.

What do you mean by "doing well by doing good"?

It's a fairly simple philosophy, not only for lawyers but for most people who want to help their communities: you've got to be able to do well, economically, in order to help other people.

I found that the better I did in my law practice, the more it gave us the cushion we needed to provide pro bono and low bono work. You can't really do that if you're struggling.

That's why it's so important to help people start off on the right foot, learn how to maximize their time in order to generate income and then be able to give it back to the communities they're hoping to serve.

How did the original CUNY incubator work?

It was an 18-month program: half the time devoted to developing business skills and half the time devoted to professional legal skill development. That was the model for business incubators — I learned about what they were doing for graphic designers and startup companies and bakers and then retrofitted those ideas to the needs of lawyers.

A key aspect of the CUNY incubator, in terms of increasing access to justice, was that it would get grants from government and other organizations that lawyers in the incubator could carry out. Many of the lawyers did not have the skills to do that when they entered the incubator, but we developed training for them.

They were able to combine what they learned in the incubator classroom and then go out and work on housing and immigration.

What areas of law do incubator grads work in?

I'd say immigration, family and housing. Housing is huge. Consumer debt is big. People's bread and butter kinds of areas like real estate, learning how to do closings. Also, with an aging population, learning how to deal with elder issues is really important: affordable, reasonably priced wills and powers of attorneys or guardianships.

We've also seen incubators set up specifically to train lawyers in the area of domestic violence. There's also a couple focused on environmental issues.

It's amazing to see how they've grown and morphed into something that is not the cookie cutter model that we started in CUNY. We've never tried to have any kind of control over how programs are set up, we've just been there to help people create them in ways that best suit the needs of the particular area.

How can legal incubators help complement the work of legal services organizations?

The number one challenge when launching your own practice is creating a client base. At CUNY, we were able to connect with legal aid organizations and they would provide their over income clients who just barely didn't qualify for services.

We would encourage the lawyers in the incubator to collectively go out into communities helping senior citizens, helping people with housing issues, immigration issues, and they were getting their names out so that once people began to know that they were there and they had a practice, they were then called upon to provide services.

Why do you think the incubator model hadn't already been brought to legal education, before 2007?

We really needed to have law schools rethink what their ultimate goal was. Was it simply to graduate students who would then go into big firms, make a lot of money, and then give back through alumni contributions? That seemed to be it.

When we started the idea of education for lawyers, and this is honestly the honest to God truth, the only thing that law schools did is they would have an alumni weekend and they would provide [continuing legal education] credits and bagels. That was it.

And as you can see from the way that incubators began to grow and flourish, law schools bought into the concept. Once a law school in one geographic area started an incubator, there was a lot of pressure on other law schools to follow suit.

Still today, one group of law schools that have shown virtually no interest in incubators have been the Ivy League schools. We're much more attractive to law schools who have students from working class and immigrant families — their opportunities in large firms are not as great.

What are you planning to accomplish in Bulgaria?

The focus on this particular incubator is the training of young Roma law graduates.

In a country like Bulgaria where Roma communities are extremely marginalized, their young law graduates have no uncles or godfathers to take their hand and walk them into jobs and opportunities. Without the ability to create their own law practices, they often leave law and go into something else — they want to practice law and serve their communities, but it's not always easy without someone there to help.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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