Touro Law Center, following a national trend in legal education, is helping its alumni launch their solo practices while filling a need in the community for lower-cost advocacy.
The first attorneys in the legal incubator called the Community Justice Center of Long Island, in Hauppauge, had the opportunity to hone their skills and apply their law education in much the same way doctors work in hospital residencies after medical school.
The dozen participants, a mix of recent Touro graduates and seasoned lawyers who had left larger firms, took on immigration, foreclosure, custody, disability, employment and traffic cases under the supervision of more experienced attorneys and without the cost of setting up their own offices. They will move on this month when their 18-month term ends.
Fewer jobs for new lawyers, grueling hours for partner-track associates and a renewed sense of responsibility have pushed more attorneys into the areas of public interest and community law, experts say. Generally, law schools and some state bar associations, with an eye on postgraduate employment statistics and the lack of affordable legal representation, are helping fund the startup firms.
Touro's justice center is among some 50 law incubators created in the past eight years. To get it started, the Central Islip law school hired attorney Fred Rooney, who created the first such program in the nation in 2007 at the City University of New York School of Law.
Glenn F. Campbell, 46, of Coram, a disability attorney, said he seized the opportunity to apply for a spot in the program two years ago. As a Touro alum and a quadriplegic, he always knew he was well-situated to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.
"I always wanted a career in which I could live independently and have a life I could call my own," Campbell said.
He was able to get some client referrals through the law school and pay the justice center's modest rent of $300 per month, which includes an office, desk, utilities, phone, Internet and the research and scholarly resources of the law school and its professors.
"Establishing yourself is an arduous task," he said.
'No one wants you'
While Campbell came into the incubator with some 15 years of work experience and a few of his own clients and contacts, Tiffany Moseley, a May 2012 graduate, started from the ground up.
"My first client literally came from Craigslist," said Moseley, 28, of Brooklyn.
"When you are young and just out of school, no one wants you to represent them," she said. "There's a lot of hustle in the beginning, but if you're willing to work and you do a good job, you'll get the client referrals."
Born and reared in the Laurelton section of Queens, Moseley said she knew in the third grade that she wanted to be a lawyer.
"If law firms aren't paying what you think you should get, and you just spent $200,000 on law school, what are you going to do? You aren't going to throw your hands up and give up," she said. "You've got to try, and going out on your own is something to do -- but only if you're the right kind of person."
Since joining the incubator, she has taken on serious matrimonial and custody cases, often advocating for women and mothers. Her clients are charged below market rate and she works out payment plans with them.
"I'm doing exactly what I went to law school for," Moseley said.
Touro Law School Dean Patricia Salkin said she believes the program will thrive because this young generation of lawyers seems to have a particularly entrepreneurial spirit. Millennials are looking for more flexible work schedules than many law firms provide and want to be their own bosses, she said.
"Couple that with the fact that 75 percent of lawyers who are in practice are in small or independent firms," said Salkin, citing data from the American Bar Association.
A lifelong connection
The school is working on transitioning those lawyers into their own offices. Several are planning to rent a new space together.
"I view it as them having a lifelong connection with the school through the incubator program," Salkin said.
A big catalyst in getting the Touro incubator off the ground was the hiring of Rooney. The concept behind the incubator he developed at CUNY was so successful that he has helped dozens of similar projects for law schools, states and nonprofits across the country, as well as internationally.
Rooney, who is director of Touro Law Center's International Justice Center for Post-Graduate Development, continues to oversee the incubator while consulting on the development of others.
For some of these lawyers, he said, paying off their student loans and going through the "peaks and valleys" of work flow and income are major challenges. But at their core, they are attracted to these "low-bono" cases because they want to serve their community.
"A lot of lawyers have a commitment to social justice," Rooney said. "Lawyers have a responsibility to make sure that people in their community are not shut out of the legal system."
Hofstra University has a similar launchpad for attorneys, affiliated with its Maurice A. Deane School of Law. The program, started in March 2014 and supported by grants and private donations, is a fellowship for recent graduates who have taken the bar exam and want to pursue public interest law.
Each of the four fellows in the program is paid a salary of $35,000 for the year, said Lisa M. Petrocelli, the program's executive director and managing attorney.
"We're a little different in that we don't ask them to pay into our incubator," said Petrocelli, who had been on staff at a Garden City law firm and then ran a solo practice. She said it is an important program for young lawyers, even if they decide to eventually work at a law firm.
"They might wind up at a Wall Street law firm or in practice, but they will always have that commitment to social justice," she said.
That was the case for Daniel G. DePasquale, an attorney at the Touro law incubator who was lured away from the large firm Cullen and Dykman, based in Garden City.
He had graduated from Touro in December 2010. Although he used to represent banks, now he helps homeowners fight foreclosure, he said.
"There's something to be said for the camaraderie that is in an office where you share a common purpose," DePasquale said. "And that's a lot more valuable than you think when you are starting your own practice."