It seems that rarely a week passes in Pittsburgh without the news of a new incubator or accelerator space opening. Spaces are opening for all kinds of early stage businesses including food, medical, tech and now law.

The University of Pittsburgh announced plans to open the Pitt Legal Services Incubator in January 2016.

The idea of assistance for young lawyers might leave some puzzled, but these aren’t your typical graduates. The Legal Services Incubator is looking for recent graduates who are interested in starting their firms to help underserved client communities.

“There’s so much legal need out there. People say there are so many lawyers, and that’s not true,” says Professor Thomas Ross, Professor of Law at Pitt and the Faculty Director of the Legal Services Incubator. “The problem is there are too many lawyers chasing the same client base.”

“The job market is pretty tough for young lawyers. A lot of them would like to start solo or small law firms, but they feel uncertain about their capacity to do it,” says Ross. The incubator will assist young lawyers to get a head start by providing workspace, connections and resources to help each lawyer start a firm.

Professor Thomas Ross, courtesy of University of Pittsburgh.
Professor Thomas Ross, courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh.
Professor Thomas Ross, courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh.

Ross, a professor of legal ethics, began developing the interest to create a legal incubator on campus after seeing the trend rise–there are around 20 incubators in law schools around the country.

When Ross spoke with recent graduates, he realized an incubator could not only be a place for young lawyers to learn, but also an opportunity to help underserved communities. Many of his students express interest in creating niche firms that focus on specific causes such as urban agriculture or remote services for rural clients.

“There’s a lot of possibilities here in terms of the clients we could serve that right now are not getting access to lawyers,” explains Ross. “Not getting access to lawyers means not getting access to justice and not getting access to things you need critically.”

The Pitt Legal Services Incubator isn’t for every young lawyer. Ross encourages entrepreneurial-minded lawyers to apply to the two-year program. “We’ll be paying much less attention to where they graduated in their class, and we’ll be paying a lot more attention to the interview process,” Ross says.

The program has no set curriculum and the interests of the lawyers in the space will largely guide the experiences. Ross wants young lawyers to consider working with underserved communities, and to also practice law differently.

“As long as they [young lawyers] think they have to deliver services in the old, conventional way, they’re going to be financially out of reach for the people we’re focused on,” Ross says.

Using concepts like unbundled legal services and taking cues from popular online legal technology sites like LegalZoom, Ross wants to make sure the incubator can help clients that make too much money to qualify for legal aid, but couldn’t possibly afford a traditional lawyer.

He explains that by using time wisely and asking clients to file their own paperwork, lawyers can bill less time, making their services more accessible. “I want to make sure that we as lawyers are only doing the work we need to,” says Ross.

Applications will open in late October after the Bar Exam results are published. For its first year, the incubator is aiming to accept a group of six to eight recent graduates to start their practices in the space.

The incubator is located on campus in the law school. The large area near the library features a wall of windows facing out to Oakland. “It’s a very dramatic space,” says Ross.

Emma Diehl

Emma Diehl is a writer, blogger, and social media marketer working in tech and startups in Pittsburgh. She loves local craft beer and a well-crafted pun.