One day a week, the phone lines light up and people with urgent problems involving immigration, housing, divorce and domestic violence arrive for appointments at the Norwalk office of Community Legal Services of Southeast Los Angeles County. There, they meet UCLA School of Law alumna Vanessa Soma, whose experience in public interest work and the rigors of courtroom practice gives comfort to residents of nine Southern California communities who lack clear avenues to justice.
The work is often emotional and deeply challenging, Soma said, but also “very gratifying.” She credits that keen sense of helping where it’s most needed to her training at UCLA Law — and to the year she spent as a recent alumna in the Los Angeles Incubator Consortium.
Founded in 2015 with a grant from the State Bar of California’s Commission on Access to Justice, the incubator brings together graduates of UCLA Law, Loyola Law School and Southwestern Law School to gain skills necessary for attorneys to work in underserved communities, often as solo practitioners.
Joseph Berra, the clinical and experiential project director at UCLA Law who helps run the consortium, says it fills needs for both clients and counsel. “Even though L.A. has tens of thousands of lawyers, whole communities lack adequate access to counsel, particularly in moderate- and low-income areas. The program gives new attorneys the tools to succeed, and they then open the door for clients who might otherwise be shut out.”
Each February, approximately a dozen newly minted J.D.s enter a yearlong program in which they are mentored by attorneys from supporting organizations including Community Legal Services, Bet Tzedek, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County and Public Counsel. They then give back 100 hours of pro bono work. At the same time, they ramp up their private practices with shared or low-cost office space; access to expensive legal practice books, Westlaw or Lexis databases, and case-management software; and pivotal lessons on the financial aspects of managing a law firm.
“The incubator program took away the fear and anxiety of going into solo practice,” said Soma, who graduated from UCLA Law in 2013. “A lot of those start-up costs are taken care of. The worry about not having skills is addressed through training. And mentorship, networking, and volunteering opportunities offer experience so that it isn’t so frightening to imagine being in court every day. Building a practice is still an uphill battle — but less steep of a hill because of all the help that we get.”
Seven UCLA Law alumni have participated in the first three years of the program, which aims to provide so-called “low-bono” services to people whose needs, such as document preparation or simple access to legal information, might otherwise not be addressed. Each month, incubator participants gather for meetings with their peers and hold pro bono office hours for drop-in clients at the L.A. Law Library downtown.
The group includes several fluent foreign-language speakers who are well-versed in legal issues beyond the public interest realm, from personal injury and intellectual property to business and employment matters. The incubator also connects them with a variety of community legal initiatives, such as state-mandated traffic-ticket amnesty and ability-to-pay clinics, where they help people who have unpaid fines or suspended licenses.
“Something as simple as a ticket for rolling through a stop sign keeps spiraling downward to the point where they can be arrested for it, they can go to jail, they can’t keep their job, their lives are ruined,” said Matthew Kay, who graduated in 2010 from UCLA and who runs a solo practice in West Hollywood. “So now they can go back to their job and drive legally, without worrying about being pulled over.”
Thanks to the incubator, he adds, the benefits multiply. “Our clients’ lives are made better,” Kay said, “and, for my work as a lawyer in the community, the experience is so valuable.”
Applications for attorneys who are interested in participating in the Los Angeles Incubator Consortium's 2018 program will be accepted through November, and admitted participants will be selected in early December.