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SBOT President’s Update: Solving the Justice Riddle

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 09:27 -- admin25

by Frank Stevenson

Are you good at riddles? Try this one.

Last year, Texas lawyers gave roughly 3.21 million hours of free or heavily discounted pro bono legal services to the poor worth—conservatively—$870.4 million. Yet still thousands of Texans desperately needing legal assistance go without help.

So, is the glass half empty or half full?

Or maybe that is not the riddle that needs solving. Maybe instead it is simply: Where is the faucet?

I have been spending time with a decidedly “find-the-faucet” group of Texas lawyers, all committed to solving the justice riddle.

Last December, a commission appointed by the Texas Supreme Court issued a series of recommendations to expand civil legal services for modest-means clients in Texas. This report was the harvest of over a year of work by leading legal scholars, judges, and lawyers—every one a find-the-faucet type. Among its recommendations was for the Supreme Court to “support and promote ‘legal incubators,’ providing supervision and training for lawyers who plan to open their own offices after law-school graduation, and (to) expand such programs.”

Three months later, Texas was honored to host the national Consortium for Access to Justice Conference at Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth. People came from across the country—in fact, from around the world—to advance incubators, residencies, apprenticeships, and nonprofit law firms as means to solve the justice riddle. I heard from the find-the-faucet crowd all the remarkable progress being made elsewhere, and was honored to report on all the progress being made right here.

Texas A&M University School of Law has launched the Texas Apprenticeship Program to match recent law graduates with practitioners who share the goal of serving modest-means clients. Baylor Law School’s Legal Mapmaker program is operating in cooperation with other law schools—including SMU Dedman and UNT Dallas—to provide a practice development template for young lawyers who want to start their own firms.

And the State Bar launched the inaugural cohort of our own incubator program in April. The Texas Opportunity and Justice Incubator—or TOJI—will expand access to justice for low- and moderate-income Texans by assisting new lawyers in establishing sustainable practices that serve this population. TOJI training will equip our grads to support themselves and their families, thus conferring careers affording the rare opportunity to do good and do well. It’s been accomplished elsewhere and it’s being accomplished here.

Since November, we have responded to over 400 phone and email inquiries from potential TOJI applicants, volunteer attorneys, and law school faculty and administrators. Forty-eight qualified Texas lawyers applied for the 10 spots in our inaugural cohort, and we are now accepting applications for the second cohort, expected to begin in October. Please tell any find-the-faucet types you know about TOJI.

While most of TOJI’s activities take place in Austin, TOJI is not just an Austin program. TOJI participants are required to reside in Austin during our 18-month program, but our graduates will be welcome—in fact encouraged—to relocate anywhere to establish their practices. And our ultimate goal is to establish TOJI as a model and curriculum for similar incubator projects throughout Texas. We want to have faucets running all across the state.

We also see growing interest in the nonprofit law firm model—another find-the-faucet initiative. Several nonprofit firms are operating in Texas, and two members of TOJI’s inaugural cohort intend to launch their own. That model, which typically utilizes sliding-scale fees based on income, is yet another innovative way to solve the justice riddle.

So, if you are good at riddles, there is none worthier than this one.

When I was DBA president, we honored Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And a photo of the Center’s Civil Rights Memorial appeared on the screen. An inscription on the Center’s façade reads “…until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” Martin Luther King’s paraphrase in his “I Have a Dream” speech of Amos 5:24—a modern prophet summoning an ancient one.

It sounds no less prophetic today. And all it might take is to find enough faucets.

Frank Stevenson, a partner in Locke Lord in Dallas, is the 2016-2017 president of the State Bar of Texas and a former president of the Dallas Bar Association.

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