The Susquehanna Township campus of Widener University School of Law is attempting to address two needs in the local legal community through a new partnership.
In conjunction with the Dauphin County Bar Association, the law school has launched an incubator program aimed at providing startup equipment and business mentoring services to recent law graduates who want to start their own solo practice or small law firm.
“The percentage of young people, new graduates coming out and hanging their own shingle, is increasing because the job market has been so tight in the last few years,” said Elizabeth Simcox, executive director of the bar association. “This gives students a real good opportunity to learn the business, practice law and have a safety net.”
It also helps get these new lawyers into the mindset of doing pro bono work and learning to serve the community, said Robyn Meadows, interim co-dean at Widener Law’s Harrisburg-area campus.
“We want the incubator program to find graduates who wish to practice in this type of setting,” she said. “This type of practice represents regular people with regular problems. In a larger firm, the cost of legal representation may be higher than what lower- or middle-income individuals can afford.”
Of the bar association’s 1,500 members, solo practitioners account for 5.8 percent. The bar has added 21 such members since the beginning of 2012.
The demand from graduates is there, said J. Palmer Lockard II, director of Widener’s civil law clinic and coordinator of the incubator. Knowing how to market a legal business and perform practice-oriented aspects of the law are common deterrents, he said.
“They don’t know how to set up a Web page and network to run a successful business,” Lockard said. “And they are not necessarily comfortable drafting paperwork and filing with the court, getting it served.”
The new program, which will get underway with training this fall with law offices to open in January, will accept two or three recent Widener graduates. The bar association will provide the Harrisburg office space, while Widener will have the basic equipment and run the training on how to build a law practice.
Participants will be required to pay for their malpractice insurance, and they must commit to providing 100 hours of pro bono legal work, which will be coordinated by MidPenn Legal Services.
“We’re going to have monthly meetings with them. We’re hoping to get volunteers from different segments of the economy,” Lockard said, referring to the training that will touch on various aspects of running a business, including tax implications and malpractice insurance.