The Law School Consortium Project: Law Schools Supporting Graduates to Increase Access to Justice for Low and Moderate-Income Individuals and Communities

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The Law School Consortium Project began as an experiment designed by a group of law schools. (1) The goal was to extend the educational and professionalism missions of law schools beyond graduation to provide training, mentoring, and other support to solo and small-firm lawyers. By helping this segment of the legal profession develop economically viable and professionally satisfying practices, the Project seeks to increase the availability of quality legal services for low and moderate-income individuals and communities.

The Project's founding members wished to address the following: (1) access to quality "low bono" (2) legal services; (2) the dearth of guidance and services for solo and small-firm lawyers to help them provide quality legal services and handle ethical and practice dilemmas; and (3) the large number of law school graduates who enter law schools aspiring to work for the public interest, but, upon graduation, find themselves debt-ridden or unable to obtain one of the scarce public service positions available.

The Project has demonstrated that by supporting solo and small-firm practitioners, law schools can enable them to have satisfying, economically viable careers while serving the needs of low and moderate-income individuals and communities. In supporting these practitioners, law schools expand the field of public interest practice by providing students with employment options that enable them to develop public interest practices and engage in work about which they care deeply.

The Project is premised on the belief that helping solo and small-firm practitioners provide high quality legal services is vital because of the crucial role they play in the legal community. In light of the limited funding for, and restrictions on, legal services organizations (3) and the decline in pro bono participation by large law firm attorneys, (4) solo and small-firm practitioners are essential sources of legal services to low and moderate-income individuals and communities. ABA studies have documented that seventy-five percent of low-income persons who utilize lawyers receive assistance from private attorneys rather than from legal services organizations. (5) The studies also report that eighty percent of the legal needs of low-income persons remain unmet. (6) The founding member schools thought building networks among typically isolated solo and small-firm practitioners would connect them with each other, as well as with resources and services, (7) and thereby augment the success of their practices and enable them to provide quality legal services.

The member schools concluded that law schools should create these practitioner networks because they are, by virtue of their expertise and resources, well suited to

1. build networks of solo and small-firm practitioners who can learn from and support each other;

2. contribute ongoing training and education needed by recent graduates to provide quality legal services;

3. provide practitioners with instruction in substantive law;

4. modify curricula based on their experiences with solo and small-firm practitioners to better prepare the large number of law graduates who ultimately enter solo and small-firm practices; and

5. educate students and graduates on innovative legal services.

The results of this experiment demonstrate that law school-supported networks of solo and small-firm practitioners are both valuable and viable. The creation of these networks has had a significant positive impact on solo and small-firm practitioners (8) and increased access to legal services for low and moderate-income individuals and communities. (9) In turn, these networks benefit the participating law schools as well. (10)

As we face the ever-increasing gap between those who can and those who cannot afford legal services, we must find ways to expand the legal services delivery system beyond increasing the number of attorneys who provide pro bono services. …