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Cleveland-Marshall College of Law helps graduates transition to solo practice

Incubator tenant Melissa Gawelek speaks with Program Coordinator Ashley Jones behind XXXXXX. In response to the growing number of law students hanging out their own shingles, in May the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law unveiled its solo practice incubator, joining a small number of other institutions around the country with similar programs. Housed in a portion of the existing law library, the incubator offers low-rent office space with all the trimmings, along with many other benefits, to recent graduates who choose to go it alone. (Photos courtesy of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law)

SHERRY KARABIN
Legal News Reporter

Published: August 1, 2014

Although the unemployment rate may be going down, new law school graduates are still finding it challenging to secure jobs.

According to a report by the National Association for Law Placement, 84.5 percent of the class of 2013 secured a spot. Despite the slight improvement over the last two years, the employment rate still remains quite a bit behind the all-time high of 91.9 percent in 2007, which was reached prior to the financial crisis.

The less than rosy job market means more young attorneys are hanging out their own shingles, and educators at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law have come up with a way to give them an added advantage.

In May the school unveiled its solo practice incubator, joining a small number of other institutions around the country with similar programs. Housed in a portion of the existing law library, the incubator offers low-rent office space with all the trimmings, along with many other benefits, to recent graduates who choose to go it alone.

“When I became dean in 2011, incubators existed in a few other schools,” said Cleveland-Marshall School of Law Dean Craig Boise. “The reason we decided to move forward with the idea was because 15 percent of our graduates were going into solo practice every year.”

“The idea for the incubator first began some time in 2011,” said Christopher Sagers, a law professor at the Cleveland-Marshall School of Law and solo incubator advisory council member. “The concept itself was nothing new. Business schools had been doing this type of thing for a long time.”

However, Sagers said starting an incubator for law students was far from the norm. With few examples to follow, administrators enlisted the help of Fred Rooney, who created the first law firm incubator at the City University of New York School of Law in 2007.

“While we were working on the concept, we began offering a program in the law school for students considering solo practice. We brought in speakers from outside who had solo practices to discuss what it was like,” said Boise.

He said one of the biggest challenges for the CUNY operation was finding enough space, an obstacle which he said Cleveland-Marshall did not have to overcome.

“We were fortunate to have the largest law library in the state of Ohio,” Boise said. “A large portion of the space had been freed up because of the conversion to electronic materials, leaving room for an incubator.”

The initial phase of the incubator includes ten offices, a large conference room and two small ones, a break room and a reception area. Although the incubator is located in the law library, it does have a private entrance on East 18th Street.

“We plan to add a second phase with five more offices,” said Boise.

Those who sign on are asked to commit to a two-year lease. There are currently three attorneys, including Matt Williams, a criminal defense attorney, Joy Kennedy, who is transitioning from a position with the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office to an estate planning practice, and Melissa Gawelek, an immigration attorney.

“I always knew I wanted to be a solo practitioner, but I never thought I would be able to afford it or have the connections and confidence to make it happen,” said Gawelek, who graduated in July 2013.

“The incubator was the answer for many of my concerns,” she said. “Thanks to the incubator program, I have a modern and well-furnished office space and a support network of other attorneys to answer my questions regarding the business of running my practice.

“Without this option I don’t think I would have been able to strike out on my own, at least not so soon after being admitted.”

“We are not a law firm, we house individual practitioners,” said Boise. “Each person is responsible for his/her own practice but the difference is instead of setting up in their basement, we offer a professional office space at a low-cost rent, mentors and the ability for these new attorneys to work in an environment with other young attorneys who can provide moral support.”

Solo practitioner and recent graduate Ashley Jones serves as the coordinator of the program.

"I graduated in May 2011 and was not drawn to the big firm culture and wanted more flexibility as an attorney and woman," said Jones. “I decided to open my own practice as a criminal defense attorney but I had to teach myself how to do it.”

Today her criminal defense law firm, Ashley Jones Law, has offices in downtown Cleveland and Akron.

“In law school you learn about the law but you never learn the business aspect of it. I am now a direct mentor to the young attorneys in this incubator who might call for advice on how to get clients, what to charge and how to fill out certain forms.”

In cases where she doesn’t have the answer, Jones said she refers them to attorneys, usually alumni, who can help with the specific questions they may have about a case.

“These attorneys can also co-counsel cases if they wish with our tenants. It's really about creating relationships, and our alumni are eager to help.”

Jones said while the rent is low, it is key that the tenants pay something to get a real feeling of what it is like to run a business.

So far, Gawelek has three clients. She said having attorneys in different practice areas allows for client referrals within the group. “Our offices are all private but we are right next to each other.

“We each have our own mentors in the community and they are helping us along the way, answering our questions both about complicated legal issues and the basics of getting started.

“Soon the incubator will be offering the tenants free CLEs on substantive legal issues and law practice management.”

In August, the incubator is expected to get a fourth client, bankruptcy attorney, Ben Taylor.

While the incubator’s tenants are getting a helping hand, Gawelek said the main idea behind the program is that the attorneys are also providing a service to the community by offering lower-cost services to those who may not be able to otherwise afford to hire an attorney or don’t qualify for legal aid.

“We believe that legal education is in transition,” said Sagers. “The incubator is part of that ongoing transition. Additionally, we would like to make a contribution that might lead to a more affordable and efficient model for the delivery of legal services to clients.”


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