Feb. 2, 2018 - Several months removed from graduating from the University of Houston Law Center and passing the Texas bar exam, a number of recent graduates are making their own distinctive inroads into the legal profession.
MacKenzie Dunham and Douglas Evans see a critical problem in the Texas court system, as most people simply cannot afford a lawyer. The American Bar Association and the Texas Access to Justice Commission have identified this issue as the "access to justice gap."
In response, Dunham and Evans established Access Justice Houston, a non-profit "low bono" law firm, the first of its kind in Houston. A low bono firm reduces its rates on a sliding scale based on a person's income, so that people of modest means can afford to hire attorneys.
"Your average person is navigating a court system that was never designed for them," Dunham said. "These are the people we're trying to help with our non-profit. Take family law cases for example. In Harris County, approximately 62-72 percent of all parties represent themselves because they cannot or did not get a lawyer. Unfortunately, these people often end up confused or angry at whatever result they get."
"In Texas there's no current, statewide solution to this problem," Evans added. "Legal aid funding only goes so far. We knew there were already great institutions and nonprofits that could provide free legal help to the poorest of the poor.
"However, there was very little in place in the Houston area dedicated to helping those that didn't qualify for free legal services, but still couldn't afford an attorney."
When Dunham, Evans and a number of their classmates graduated from the Law Center, they worked with Assistant Dean for Career Development Tiffany Tucker and the UHLC Solo Incubator Program, which provides recent UHLC graduates with resources most useful for young lawyers seeking to begin a solo practice. The program includes funds that have been designated by Dean Leonard M. Baynes to help solo-focused recent alumni launch their practices.
For Gregory Garvin, starting his own practice was rooted in his previous experience of 25 years as a practicing physician. His firm, Caduceus Mediation, LLC, was formed primarily for providing mediation services, but Garvin is also available for medico-legal consulting or representation on current or pending actions.
After completing his law school education, he was inspired to start his own business while interviewing with another firm that felt his background in medicine could provide him with a unique position for mediating lawsuits involving health care.
"That seemed like a very good plan for my second career in law and so I began pursuing it," Garvin said. "The pursuit of the new career plan was engendered after winning the Newhouse Mediation Tournament at UHLC, and then was followed up by taking a course in Negotiation and Creative Problem Solving, as well as earning my mediator certificate."
Garvin said he is continuing to gain experience by volunteering at the Houston Bar Association's Dispute Resolution Center providing pro bono mediations.
"I am engaged in providing medico-legal advice to clients and firms which may draw upon my expertise," he said. "My legal education overall comes into play for those functions, and together with my extensive medical experience provides me with an invaluable perspective to provide assistance or representation on health care issues."
With a passion for helping people in a personal way, Ashley Miller decided to specialize in family law and probate law. She found the idea of independence appealing and rents space from Frye, Benavidez, & O'Neil, PLLC, where she previously worked as an intern.
"I recommend going solo because you have the opportunity to control your career," Miller said. "Working for myself allows me to create a more productive environment. I also feel like I retain more of the things I'm learning every day.
"Going solo probably works better for some people more than others because people have different learning styles and methods. Those who want to control their own destiny have the opportunity to do so by going solo.
While at the Law Center, she worked in the civil practice clinic and credits Associate Professor of Clinical Practice Janet Heppard and Diane McManus, a clinical supervising attorney with the clinic, for providing her with enough expertise to hit the ground running with her practice.
"The skills I gained under them were invaluable to me as a baby lawyer. I'm not scared of interviewing new clients, the courtroom, or to ask for help. Those three things are part of my daily practice, so it pays not to be scared of them."
David Robledo established his own law office of general practice, but primarily works on immigration cases.
"Helping clients gain legal immigration status means the world to me," he said. "It gives me a sense of fulfillment to know that I have helped people come out of the shadows and they do not have to be worried about being removed from the United States.
"The skills I acquired while working at the Immigration Clinic of the Law Center have helped me to interact with clients and assess the cases that come before me."
Robledo said he has always had entrepreneurial wishes and that helped spur him to become his own boss, but also found a sense of duty from his mother's experiences.
"After seeing how much she endured as an immigrant, I knew that once I became an attorney I could take action to help instead of just watching," he said. "I've always wanted to have my own business, and after speaking to other solo attorneys, it inspired me to start my own practice. They gave me the motivation to do it."