Many law students apply to law school motivated by a healthy dose of idealism and a desire to fight for justice, but some are derailed by a combination of mounting student loan debt and attractive large firm salaries. Others simply have no idea how to build an economically viable, yet heart-centered practice representing consumers, employees, or tenants, rather than powerful institutional clients, until now. 

MSBA members were recently guided through the nuts and bolts of establishing a private practice that is dedicated to civil justice in a Legal Summit Series on Sept. 15.

It’s more than just doing some pro bono work on the side, said attorney Jane Santoni, a partner at the firm Santoni, Vocci & Ortega LLC. 

“What we’re talking about is you being able to make a living day in and day out representing these kinds of people,” Santoni said, “My goal in life is to build an army of lawyers doing that.”

It’s possible to run a viable business serving this need, but lawyers might need to get creative with fee arrangements, utilize limited scope representation, and take advantage of stipend opportunities, according to presenter Sarah Coffey Bowes, attorney and Executive Director of Civil Justice, Inc. 

Civil Justice is a nonprofit that promotes access to justice through a network of small and solo firms dedicated to the cause. It handles some matters in-house and refers cases to more than 100 attorneys across Maryland.

Family, housing, and small claims were the areas with the highest unmet demand for legal representation last year, according to data from Maryland courts. Other cases in high demand involve peace and protective orders and debtor-creditor issues. 

“There is a tremendous level of unmet need,” Bowes said.

Bowes and Santoni covered both the positives and negatives of running one’s own practice and offered specific pointers on administration and marketing.

“It’s critical to develop a network of support,” Santoni said. She recommended that lawyers starting a firm become involved in community groups, bar associations, and offer co-counsel services to other attorneys. 

The hour-long virtual session both inspired and informed attendees, providing them advice on everything from budgeting, to time tracking, to advertising, and software. 

“If you are thinking about practicing law in a way that can change people’s lives for the better, don’t give up on that,” Santoni encouraged attendees.