NewsMaker Interview — Fred Rooney on the CUNY Incubator

Today’s Newsmaker Interview is with Fred Rooney at CUNY Law School.  He directs CUNY’s Community Legal Resource Network (CLRN) and, along with Sue Bryant, created the Incubator for Justice program, which helps law gradates transition to economically viable solo and small practice.  The Incubator also has been home to two startup not-for-profits.  As you know, I think this is a very important model for the future, one of the very few that offers some real hope for change in the profession.

Zorza:  Fred, thanks so much for participating in this Newsmaker Interview.  Can you give us an overview of what you are trying to do with the Incubator program, and how you see this fitting into long-term trends in legal education and the profession?

Rooney:  We have two main goals for our incubator program.  First, like all business incubators, CLRN’s Incubator aims to assist our graduates to develop successful businesses  in our case, small solo practices. To accomplish that goal, CLRN provides an array of services and resources to improve the participants’ lawyering skills, practice knowledge and business approaches. However, we are not only interested in economically successful small practices. We also want to help our graduates become successful social entrepreneurs who can contribute to improving access to justice while enabling them to make a living.  CUNY School of Law’s special mission of graduating diverse public interest lawyers makes these combined goals of “doing well while doing good” something that interests our grads and our funders.

The incubator program is an example of what law schools can do to respond to trends in the profession, to community needs and to legal education.  Recent trends in the profession include a decrease in the number of paid lawyer positions. Like all other graduates, law graduates are facing the prospect of creating their own jobs, and law school sponsored programs like the Incubator that respond by enabling students to successfully create their own jobs will fill a need.  Additionally, with the significant decrease in federally and locally sponsored free legal services, lawyers are needed in community-based practices to provide affordable and innovative services to fill the gap. Our incubator program enables graduates to provide these services and experiment with service models. Finally, the Incubator responds to trends in legal education that include educating graduates for practice and improving graduates’ employment possibilities.  The Incubator is just one of the many CLRN programs that creates what former Dean Kris Glen called the “longitudinal law school,” a law school that does not see its responsibility solely as awarding JDs but instead sees itself as working to improve the practice skills of graduates to benefit them and their clients.

In 1992, the ABA Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession’s MacCrate Report made a compelling argument for comprehensively reevaluating legal education in the United States. Two core observations in the MacCrate Report have guided the conceptualization and implementation of CUNY Law’s curriculum and CLRN’s broader program. The Law School since its inception developed a curriculum and a nationally ranked clinical program that taught the common set of professional skills and values that MacCrate articulated.  The CLRN and the Incubator for Justice respond to the report’s second observation that a lawyer’s education occurs on a continuum that begins in law school (or before) and continues throughout a lawyer’s career. Education in the identified set of skills and values must be ongoing.

The report recognized that some learning is best suited to the law school environment, while some develops through a lawyer’s years of practice. Significant learning also takes place informally through a lawyer’s observations of and interactions with others in the legal community.  The Incubator, in essence, has resulted in the creation of a true “longitudinal law school” since the participant’s legal education continues long after a student walks across the stage at graduation.

Being a solo or a small firm practitioner is especially important to CUNY Law grads, as many choose to return to their hometowns as solo practitioners providing affordable, critical legal services to underserved communities.  Participation in the Incubator helps new lawyers start off on the right foot and allows them to ultimately create more gratifying and economically viable practices.

Zorza:  Can you tell us a bit about what happens to students/graduates who make use of the Incubator Program.  What do they do, and what do they get?

Rooney:   Over an 18-month period, Incubator participants are offered intensive training to fine-tune their skills as both lawyers and as micro entrepreneurs.  Our training provides participants with the skills to eventually launch solo practices in underserved New York City communities. Through professional legal training, participants learn to effectively represent low-income individuals and families in areas such as housing, immigration, real property, family and consumer credit, critical areas of public interest law. We also offer training in business skills and practice to create and effectively manage economically viable solo practices.

Zorza:  How does this help them concretely set up sustainable business environments?

Rooney:  With the advent of the Incubator for Justice, CLRN is able to provide maximal on-site support under one roof to a cadre of energetic lawyers committed to increasing access to justice in New York City. The participating attorneys, selected based on their long-standing commitment to social justice, are equipped, through intensive mentoring and training, to develop professional and business management skills during their 18 months in the Incubator.

Most participants agree that the greatest benefits derived from their Incubator experience flows from the camaraderie that develops over their 18-month stint. Although each participant is a solo practitioner, participants use the collaboration skills developed during their years at CUNY Law to collectively tackle complex legal issues, share their work product, cover for each other and deal with ethical issues that arise in the day-to-day practice of law.

After participants leave the Incubator, all of the many benefits they take with them (education, training and the development of strong professional relationships) lend themselves well to the creation of sustainable business environments.

Zorza:  How is the Incubator funded?

Rooney:   Basic expenses for space and other amenities are fully covered by the participants who pay $500 a month for their office. The costs for management, training and justice projects come from a variety of other sources. A portion of my Law School paid salary covers the time I spend at the Incubator, which is roughly six hours a week, and Benjamin Flavin, an Incubator participant, is paid a part-time salary through funds I raise privately and publicly to manage the day-to-day needs of the Incubator, to fundraise, to create Continuing Legal Education opportunities for participants and to serve as an intermediary between the Incubator and CUNY Law.  His salary a year, helps to ensure quality control and the ultimate success of the program.

We also receive funding to support a practice mentor in housing and small firm practice from the City University of New York’s Workforce Development Initiative (WDI). Each year, the University receives funding from New York State to support development of New York City’s workforce through innovative workforce training and education programs and research projects. To secure funding for the Incubator, CLRN advanced the idea that lawyers, as micro entrepreneurs, need ongoing training to effectively develop their skills and establish law practices in underserved communities. Using a community economic development rationale, we set forth the idea that lawyers who set up shop in underserved communities actually increase the standard of living and economic health in their communities through the eventual hiring of support staff, paralegals and associates as well as providing support to local businesses.

CLRN developed funding for justice projects by developing close partnerships with New York City and New York State elected officials who count on CLRN and its members to help with constituents’ substantial unmet legal needs.  For example, a member of the New York City Council, whose staffers cannot offer legal advice, allocates discretionary funds to CLRN to provide lawyers to counsel constituents.  We, in turn, pay CLRN members $75/hour to provide legal counseling and limited services in the Council member’s district.  A substantial percentage of discretionary funds CLRN receives is set aside to compensate Incubator attorneys. Incubator participants are eligible to provide legal services after they have fully participated in CLRN-sponsored training and have demonstrated their competency to effectively work with clients.  They gain needed training and expertise as well as modest funding that enable them to build their practices.  At the same time, they are increasing access to justice.

Income derived from participation in City Council-sponsored initiatives helps infuse capital in participants’ practices and provides them with a cushion as they develop their own client bases.  By the end of their 18-month stint, they exit the Incubator with the professional and business skills they lacked with they first began.  These skills, in turn, enable them to create economically viable practices outside of the Incubator.

Zorza:   How do they get help with building a client base?

Rooney:  We encourage participants to network as much as possible and to engage in community education forums that we design in conjunction with local civil and religious organizations.  For example, CLRN will arrange Saturday morning workshops in underserved communities that are staffed by Incubator attorneys.  During the typical program, attorneys have an opportunity to interact with clients and provide one-on-one counseling.  Additionally, we encourage participants to market their services to individuals in groups or organizations to which they belong. For example, we encourage speakers of a second language to solidify contacts in their ethnic communities, members of religious organizations to market their practices among fellow congregants and all participants to network and market their practices to members of any affinity groups to which they may belong. CLRN shares its extensive contact lists with participants so that new networking opportunities can be maximized.

To further develop client bases, participants are encouraged to offer both pro bono and low-cost legal services in communities poorly served by private attorneys. The concept of pro bono and low bono is integral to the mission of CUNY Law, and CLRN and is the cornerstone of all that we do.  Like myself, CLRN members have learned only too well the value of working with vulnerable members of our society.

Zorza:  How does this generate actual clients?

Rooney:  I really cannot underestimate the value of providing pro bono and low bono services to generate new clients.

In 1988, a former law partner, Michele Varricchio, and I established a small firm in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  With virtually no capital to advertise, we relied heavily on the area’s growing Latino community to develop a client base, since Spanish is my second language and few Spanish-speaking attorneys existed in the area. From the onset of our practice, we knew that Latinos had the lowest per capita income in the Lehigh Valley and the greatest percentage of unmet legal needs.  Almost immediately, we faced the dilemma of effectively serving clients with little or no income and still making enough to cover our expanding overhead.  Back then, the idea of “doing well” and “doing good” seemed to be mutually exclusive.

However, what we quickly came to realize was that our pro bono and low bono clients became the key to our ultimate success.  For example, Gloria Santiago (name changed) frantically arrived in our office after her elderly mother suffered a debilitating stroke.  Overnight, Gloria needed to secure the guardianship of her mother to care for her personal and financial needs. Gloria lacked the funds to pay our modest retainer.  Michele and I faced the dilemma of turning Gloria away or “biting the bullet” and reducing our fees.  Ultimately, Gloria paid some fees and court costs and we successfully represented her in the guardianship proceedings.  Both mother and daughter were deeply grateful for our assistance.  We did what our hearts told us to do, never realizing that a year later, Gloria would return to our office with a neighbor who suffered injuries in an auto accident.  Fees derived from that case enabled us to pay our bills, pay ourselves and even put a small amount into our rainy day account.  Gloria made it clear that we were her “family lawyers” and that she would refer additional friends and family to our office.

Over the years, many clients like Gloria came to us at a time of need and were not turned away simply because they couldn’t pay the full retainer.  On those occasions, when we agreed to slide our fees or waive them entirely, our decisions have usually resulted in triple-fold blessings derived from grateful clients who refer us other clients who could pay or had fee-generating matters.

We also encourage Incubator participants to volunteer at Legal Services and other not-for-profits that provide mentoring and CLE credits to lawyers who take on pro bono cases.  This is an effective way to learn new areas of law, develop litigation skills and fulfill New York State’s annual CLE requirement.  In the long run, experience gained from pro bono services enable participants to represent clients with fee-generating cases.

Zorza:  How do the resources of the school support this?

Rooney:  CLRN, CUNY Law’s incorporation of “the longitudinal law school,” began in 1998, when a Consortium of three other schools together with CUNY received funding from the Open Society Institute and two New York City-based foundations.  Since then, CLRN has been funded by a variety of public and private resources.  My salary is paid for by the Law School, which provides all the non-personnel costs for the CLRN project. The Incubator, an offshoot of CLRN, was embraced by our administration from the onset since Dean Anderson understood the intrinsic value that it would bring to our graduates.  CLRN is included in the Law school’s major fundraising initiatives.

Zorza:  How do alumni help?

Rooney:  We call on our alumni to deliver CLEs that are designed to meet the articulated needs of Incubator participants.  Additionally, we draw on our alumni to provide mentoring in substantive areas of law and in small firm management.  Contributions made by alumni volunteers are invaluable to achieve cost-savings, contribute to participants’ professional development and generate all-around goodwill for CUNY Law.

Zorza:  What did the law school have to do to get this going?

Rooney:  We needed to secure space and purchase office equipment, develop practice mentors, conceptualize the program and recruit participants.  Professor Sue Bryant helped conceptualize the program, as did CUNY University officials who had experience with other incubator projects. Given the overall success of CLRN, the Law School administration saw the value of such an endeavor, however, they had not included any funding for this specific project in its budget. When state allocated funds failed to materialize on time, the Law School advanced the program start-up funds.

Zorza:  What does the law school get out of all this?

Rooney: CUNY Law gains recognition, improves the economics of its graduates, gathers knowledge about what our graduates need to be practice-ready and allows the School to meet requests for services from public officials and others. Through its justice projects, the Incubator gives the Law School a visible presence in the public interest community and in local neighborhoods.

When state legislators ask the Law School for help in solving constituents’ problems, the Law School can rely on the resources of the CLRN network that is 370 lawyers strong. Several years ago, when landlords in Washington Heights were gentrifying the neighborhood through  aggressive evictions, legislators asked for the Law School’s help, and CLRN and later the Incubator responded.  We began a justice project to educate, counsel and represent individuals and groups against landlords.

The Incubator and other CLRN projects are good recruitment tools for the Law School.  Many applicants want to serve underserved communities, and the Incubator provides concrete examples of how this can be done with Law School support.

Finally, the Law School has always been committed to educating lawyers who will be prepared to be lawyers in settings where they would be expected to be front-line lawyers upon graduation.  The Incubator gives Law School faculty insight into problems facing today’s practitioner.

Zorza:  How would you recommend other laws schools get similar projects going?

Rooney:  The creation of incubators appears to be happening across the U.S.  This, in large part, flows from the ongoing economic crisis and from the need for law schools to do more for their graduates.  CLRN has worked with a growing number of law schools to help them better understand the value of what we’ve created at CUNY Law and to help them identify ways to create incubators that address the specific needs of their alumni communities.  I would also recommend that they involve their university if it has small business or entrepreneurs’ centers.

While the incubator concept for lawyers is sound and has proven to be highly successful at CUNY, I would encourage law schools to see these projects not just as business development for graduates but also ways to meet university commitments to the community.  I continually emphasize the need to create incubators that focus on the plight of individuals and families with unmet legal needs.  At CUNY, our goal has always been to resource our graduates so that they, in turn, could effectively assist us in access to justice initiatives we have created in underserved communities in all five boroughs of New York City.

At CUNY, the Incubator for Justice is a tool for the creation of a corps of lawyers willing and able to join our battle to use “Law in the Service of Human Needs.”  Given that basic premise, we feel a sense of pride in being able to share the fruits of our labor with other law school and bar associations that are equally desirous of preparing lawyers to defend the principle of “justice for all.”

Zorza:  What role might other players in the access to justice community play?  Bar organizations?  Access commissions?  Legal aid programs?  Pro bono groups?

Rooney:  At a time when access to justice has hit an all-time low and so many law graduates and new lawyers are without work, CUNY’s Incubator model is both timely and so desperately needed.  Not surprisingly, I’m receiving calls each week from law schools across the nation that are looking to create their own incubators.  I’ve visited law schools in Florida, Georgia, Utah, California, and Massachusetts to talk about CUNY’s Incubator and have hosted groups from different parts of the country who have come to visit our Incubator in Manhattan.

For groups or organizations truly committed to assisting lawyers develop their skills so that they can eventually labor in underserved communities, an incubator can be a real gift to the lawyers and ultimately to the clients they serve.  Other players in the justice community can help by being open to new service models and by collaborating with private practitioners.  We need to break the private/public distinctions in serving unmet needs and work together.  Small firm practitioners have difficulty setting aside big blocks of time for work that results in no pay, but creative projects that are organized by law schools and publicly-funded providers can create opportunities for lawyers to give back.

Zorza:  And what about courts, can they be partners?

Rooney:  In a first-of-its-kind collaboration in the U.S., the New York State Courts and CLRN piloted CLRN’s “LaunchPad for Justice” in the fall of 2009. This initiative, an offshoot of the Incubator, was designed to jumpstart the careers of new CUNY Law graduates and provides much-needed legal representation to low-income New Yorkers. Twelve 2009 CUNY Law graduates (known as “Justice Fellows”), awaiting admission to the New York State Bar, were trained and supervised by CLRN and court-employed attorneys to represent clients in civil matters. In an unusual move, practice orders signed by the Appellate Division Second Department and Appellate Division First Department enabled the Justice Fellows to appear in Civil Court through the “Volunteer Lawyers for a Day (VLFD)” program prior to being admitted to the New York State Bar. We developed the LaunchPad program in conjunction with Justice Fern Fisher, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for NYC Courts and Director of the NYS Courts’ Access to Justice Program.  On Sept. 29, 2009, the 12 Fellows set up shop in an office owned by the Office of Court Administration located at 80 Centre Street.

When the establishment of the LaunchPad was first made public, New York State Chief Judge Lippman said, “I am pleased to announce this important partnership, the benefits of which will be numerous and far-reaching.  LaunchPad for Justice will provide CUNY Law School graduates with the chance to build their resumes with real-world experience; the courts additional aid in dealing with heavy caseloads; and low-income New Yorkers engaged with the court system the legal counsel they desperately need.”

The LaunchPad focuses on housing law, an area that affects thousands of low-income New Yorkers in need of legal assistance. The program dovetails with the highly successful VLFD project established by Judge Fisher’s office in 2006. The VLFD program allows volunteer attorneys, trained by the Court, to provide “unbundled” legal services to meet the immense unmet legal needs of low-income New Yorkers.

To broaden its support to the New York State Courts and to New York’s communities, Incubator participants joined the Justice Fellows in taking on VLFD cases. We are also exploring ways to include students.

Zorza:  What would you have done differently in setting this up?

Rooney:  We would have devoted time to developing a stronger CLE component.  Our lawyers needed greater time to develop law office management skills and to develop practice outreach plans. We would have required participants to attend CLE and small firm management trainings.  We were not as careful as we might have been in selecting participants and setting clear expectations.  In the beginning, we were anxious to just get started.  Participants are more successful if they come to the incubator with ideas and goals about what they want to accomplish in the Incubator.

Zorza:  Finally, can you tell us what surprised you most about this process?

Rooney:  We never imagined the depth of the personal and professional relationships that would flow from the Incubator.  There is nothing more professionally gratifying for me than to arrive at the Incubator at any given time and see lawyers working together, sharing their work product, collectively seeking solutions to their clients’ legal issues and willing to provide ongoing services to our access to justice initiatives long after funding has ended.  The participants’ accomplishments are testimony to their deep sense of justice and to the institution that drove home the concept of “Law in the Service of Human Needs.”

Zorza:  How can people contact you for information and help?

Rooney:  Because access to justice is the motivating force behind everything that we do at CUNY Law, we feel privileged to share with interested law schools and legal organizations the best practices we’ve identified through the creation and implementation of our Incubator for Justice.

I can be reached at

Zorza:  Thanks so much.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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