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Solo practitioners cite benefits of legal incubators

Edwin Schwartz

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories about the recent international legal incubator conference in San Diego.

As the longtime owner of San Diego Music Studio, Robin Sassi says that being a small-business owner can be lonely and isolating.

So after Sassi graduated from California Western School of Law a few years ago, she hoped to work at a law firm where she would have colleagues with whom she could share the ups and downs of being a new lawyer.

But after months without finding a job, Sassi started doing legal work on her own.

It was during that time, in 2012, when she was approached about joining California Western’s planned Access to Law Initiative, an incubator providing space and training for new lawyers wanting to serve clients of modest means.

Sassi joined the first group of eight attorneys, found the camaraderie she was looking for and her legal career has been on the rise since.

Just two weeks ago, she argued her first appeal in a case that had been referred to her while she was in the incubator.

Sassi has since graduated, though she occupies space just down the hall from one of the Access to Law’s two downtown locations. She said the support she received from other solo practitioners was invaluable when facing new challenges.

“You have other people saying, ‘Go for it, you can do it,’ and then you do it and you realize it’s not that big of a deal,” said Sassi, 43, who practices mostly business litigation. “It helps make you brave.”

Sassi was among the lawyers who highlighted the benefits that incubators provide to new lawyers at the second annual international conference on legal incubators and residency programs hosted by California Western last weekend.

Ronza Rafo, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Law's incubator, the Center for Solo Practitioners, said she also enjoyed the positive environment.

Rafo, a solo practitioner who focuses on family and immigration law, still leases an office in the same downtown space as the incubator, as do some other graduates.

“Whenever I have a question, I don’t hesitate or feel awkward to walk down the hall and ask one of my colleagues if they can help me, because they are willing to,” said Rafo, 30. “It is not cutthroat. It is not competitive.”

Before joining the Justice Entrepreneurs Project incubator in Chicago, Rachel Boehm worked as a paralegal at a large law firm in the city and entered law school with the hope of one day having wealthy and prestigious clients.

But Boehm says as she became more involved in the firm and drew closer to becoming a lawyer, she grew uncomfortable with how the firm’s clients were treated.

The final straw was the day a domestic-violence victim came in for an initial consultation teary-eyed and with bruises on her face.

A secretary informed Boehm’s boss that the woman could not afford to pay, and Boehm remembers her boss responding, “If she can’t pay me, I’m not going to meet with her.” The woman left sobbing.

“That’s when I knew that this was not how I wanted to practice law,” said Boehm, 31.

After graduating from law school, she decided to launch her own practice to have the freedom and flexibility to “genuinely help people.”

Boehm joined the Justice Entrepreneurs Project last year as part of a class of nine lawyers.

The incubator allows her to be around other attorneys like her who are working to provide affordable legal services to clients while still making money, such as through limited-scope representation, where she would assist with part of a case, she said.

“I find creative ways to give them the service they need at a price they can afford,” said Boehm, who practices family law.

Edwin Schwartz said something he cherishes about being a solo practitioner at the Access to Law Initiative is the ability to set his own schedule.

It is especially important for Schwartz because he said he went to law school after working years as a high-end car salesman so he could spend more time with his family. The flexibility lets him attend many of his twin 7-year-old daughters’ softball games.

“Even though I might put in 60 to 70 hours, having control over those hours is a big deal,” said Schwartz, 45, who does business and real estate litigation, as well as personal injury work.

Schwartz said he has received some good leads from the incubator’s hotline, but he and his colleagues have learned that business development work to secure more clients is essential.

“If you don’t have the mindset to run your own business, then participation in an incubator probably is not going to be for you,” he said.

Related: Growth of legal incubator movement on display at conference

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California Western School of Law

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California Western School of Law Executive(s):

Phyllis Marion

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Niels Schaumann

  • President, Dean

Pamela Duffy

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Rikki Ueda

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Barbara Cox

  • Professor, Vice Dean, Faculty and Academic Affairs

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