“Low Bono” Law

“Low Bono” Law

Incubator aims to help Mitchell Hamline School of Law grads launch firms that charge affordable rates.

In the Twin Cities, it’s tough for new law school grads to find jobs, and there are plenty of people who live just above the poverty line who can’t afford traditional legal services. So a new nonprofit in St. Paul plans to tackle both those problems. The Collaborative Community Law Initiative (CCLI) was formed to create a business incubator that helps law school graduates set up their own practices.

The first four lawyers are expected to set up shop in the final quarter of this year in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul. Once they get rolling, they’ll focus on landlord-tenant disputes, criminal expungements, uncontested divorces, small business assistance and child support modifications.

“In our vast middle class, there are a lot of people struggling,” explains John Degnan, a Briggs & Morgan trial lawyer who is raising money for CCLI. He appreciates the fact that the CCLI program links new lawyers with clients who couldn’t afford higher legal fees charged by big firms. “I call it ‘low bono,’ ” he says, because it serves those who are financially a notch above legal aid, or pro bono, clients.

“They don’t qualify for a lot of free legal services,” says Ginny Bell, CCLI’s interim executive director, “but their incomes are such that it is very difficult to afford legal services.”

The attorneys who will set up their own practices can work out of the incubator location for up to 18 months and will receive training and mentoring in running a legal practice. They will establish their own rates; Bell says the clients will have incomes that fall within an anticipated 187 to 400 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

Degnan is glad to help Mitchell Hamline law graduates get their start in the legal community. Since the recession, he notes, it’s become challenging for law graduates to land jobs, partly because the big law firms have reduced hiring.

After bar exam results are revealed in October, Bell says CCLI will finalize the initial group of incubator attorneys, all Mitchell Hamline School of Law graduates. Bell says that organizers hope to grow the incubator so it will comprise 15 to 20 lawyers at a time.