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Akron Bar incubator: Support for law practice start-ups

Begun in September of 2015, the Akron Bar Association's Barberton Incubator Program provides office space and equipment, a mentor and other assistance to new attorneys who want to start their own solo practices. Elizabeth Cummins, pictured above, decided to open her own firm after learning about the Barberton Incubator Program. (Photo courtesy of the Barberton Community Development Corporation).

Legal News Reporter

Published: September 16, 2016

When Brimfield Township native Elizabeth Cummins graduated from The University of Akron School of Law in 2012, she said she considered starting her own practice but “did not have the confidence” to go it alone.

So instead she took a job as a research associate at State and Federal Communications Inc. in Akron. But after giving birth to her daughter in 2015, she decided to revisit the idea of opening her own firm.

As she was weighing the pluses and minuses, she learned that the Akron Bar Association had launched its Barberton Incubator Program, which is designed to help new solo practitioners.

Begun in September of 2015, C. Allen Nichols, executive director of the Akron Bar Association, said the program provides office space and equipment, a mentor and other tools to solos as they work to build a client base.

 “The attorney job market has not improved much,” said Nichols. “Recent law school graduates often find themselves in a lot of debt and unable to find a job. Many end up starting practices.

 “Our goal is to ease the burdens that sole practitioners encounter by assisting them in as many ways as possible.”

Those who are accepted into the 18-month program receive free office space for the first six months, reduced rent for the next six months and pay the full cost during the final portion of their stay.

 Their offices are located in a building that the bar association leases from the Barberton Community Development Corporation.

Located at 103 5th St. SE, the building was purchased by the Barberton Community Development Corporation in February 2015.

 Scott Wagner, executive director of the Barberton Community Development Corporation, said the organization always planned to lease the facility so when those in charge learned that the Akron Bar Association was starting an incubator program they invited Nichols and a couple of board members to tour the building. 

“When we purchased the facility, it was a doctor’s office,” said Wagner. “Once we found out that the bar association was interested we renovated it so it could be used for office space.”

The bar association signed a lease that took effect on Sept. 1, 2015 and expires on Aug. 31, 2018. Under the agreement, the bar association did not pay rent for the first six months.

Nichols said the bar association’s interview committee initially selected three attorneys--Angelina Gingo, Jamison Johnson and Jennifer Schartiger. They started in September of 2015 and Cummins began in February of 2016.

Longtime civil litigation attorney Mark Hilkert serves as the program’s mentor.

Hilkert retired from The Scanlon Group in Dec. 31, 2014. He said when he heard that the bar association was looking for a mentor for the incubator program he thought it would be a good opportunity to give back while putting his law degree to use.

“I had already been involved in a number of volunteer activities but none required legal skills,” said Hilkert. “Volunteering as the mentor for the incubator program lets me help young attorneys.

“I remember when I first started out Larry Scanlon’s brother, Tim, was a mentor to me and I would not have been successful without him as a mentor.”

When he first began, Hilkert said he would go into the office two or three times a week.

“What I realized is that today’s attorneys often work remotely using their devices. Now I only go into the office if one of the attorneys needs to meet with me and I make myself available on the phone.

“If I am not able to answer a question, I put them in touch with one of the attorneys that I know who can,” said Hilkert. “Most of the attorneys in the Akron area are willing to take time to answer questions from those who are starting out.”

Hilkert said when the attorneys first moved in, he set up meetings for them with judges in the various courts so they could get a better understanding of how things work.

Cummins, who is focusing on probate and estate planning along with some corporate matters, said the incubator has been indispensible.

“It has really given me the support I need to go out on my own,” said Cummins, who also received a master’s degree in business administration from The University of Akron. “If I have a question, I can reach out to Mark and he will do his best to answer it or refer me to someone who can. In addition to the office space, I have all the technology I need. All these things are making it easier to transition to working for myself.”

In Schartiger’s case, she said she was already planning to start her own practice when she heard about the incubator program.

“It has really helped me,” said Schartiger, a native of Orrville, who graduated from The University of Akron School of Law in 2014. “It provided free office space the first six months, a conference room, printer and Wi-Fi, everything I needed which was great because I did not have any of it.

“Mark made sure we all knew how to get on the criminal and juvenile court attorney appointment lists. A lot of my business has come from juvenile court. I have decided I like family law.”

Johnson is focusing on criminal and juvenile law. An Akron Law graduate, he said he’s always wanted to own a business so when the chance to be a part of the incubator program came along, he decided to make his dream a reality.

“It’s been amazing,” said Johnson. “Mark has been great and there is also a lot of value in working in a situation where I’m surrounded by peers in a similar situation. I already have a network and I am building more relationships, which can be intimidating when you first start out.

“The rent was free for the first six months and it’s still very affordable,” said Johnson. “I would say I have everything I need to get me on my feet.”

Wagner said he’s hoping that some of the attorneys will choose to set up offices in Barberton once they leave the incubator.

Schartiger said she is considering doing just that.

“A number of my clients are from Wayne County and they are not comfortable driving to downtown Akron, but they will come to Barberton,” said Schartiger. “For that reason it is possible I may seek out office space in Barberton.”

Schartiger, Gingo and Johnson will complete the program in March of 2017. Nichols said the bar association is looking for at least three aspiring solo practitioners to take their place.

“We want people who have envisioned starting a practice and perhaps have a business plan,” said Nichols. “Our office space arrangement would allow five attorneys to participate.”

“We are hoping the incubator program continues long term,” said Wagner. “The lease entitles the bar association to three one-year renewals as long as they give us 60 days notice.”