What they don’t teach in law school

Meet a reader, access to justice, and a new idea. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Something a bit different today.

I’d like you to meet a reader, Fred Rooney. We never talked before I began writing newsletters, and haven’t actually met in person, but we’ve had quite a few really interesting conversations over the last few months.

Fred is a lawyer, Fulbright Scholar, and — well, I’m going to let him tell you his story.

Actually, I helped a bit in the telling, so this is an “as told to” story: “By Fred Rooney, as told to Bill Murphy Jr.”

I’ve said before that the audience of Understandably is a really diverse, interesting group. It’s been a bit of a white whale for me, to figure out how to do something to leverage that, and introduce some of you to each other.

Let’s call today’s installment an experiment, and part of that effort. Here’s Fred’s story:


Fred Rooney

I was a social worker beginning in 1975, and then became a member of  the first graduating class at CUNY Law School in 1986. Then, I returned to Pennsylvania, to the Lehigh Valley, and worked as a lawyer for Legal Services.

My son was born in my last year of law school and my daughter was born 16 months later. The irony was that my family income was so low at Legal Services that if I’d gone in as a client, we would have qualified under the federal poverty guidelines. It was a hardship for me and my family.  

So, I started a law practice in Allentown with a friend, Michele Varricchio. Because law school didn't teach us how to run a law practice — a business — we had to learn through the school of hard knocks. I wouldn't wish that experience on my worst enemy.

But, we were lucky enough to have people in the legal community to guide us and mentor us. 

We always had clients, but they often couldn’t afford to pay. Still, pro bono is good karma. Every time I reduced or waived my fees, the blessing came back to me, triplefold.

Somebody would, say, get hit by a car and they’d ask around the neighborhood, “What lawyer do we go to?”

“Well, there's this guy, Fred Rooney…”

I carved out areas of practice like Social Security Disability, to some extent Workers' Compensation. I did lots of family law, bankruptcy and consumer issues and landlord/tenant issues.

Most of my clients were people who had everyday problems and they needed someone to turn to who wasn't going to make them remortgage their lives to retain me.

We also realized that to do good in our community, we had to do well. I was eventually able to buy my first car and go on vacation and provide for my family.

We proved that you could have a very satisfying law practice and feel like you were making a contribution to society — by enabling people of limited income to claim a right, or undo a wrong.

In 1998, I returned to CUNY Law to teach law grads to develop their business and professional skills so they could set up shop in underserved parts of NYC. In 2007, we started a pilot incubator project for nine lawyers called the Incubator for Justice.

Prior to that, I had no idea of what a business incubator was, but I looked around and found incubators for bakers and graphic designers. Why not lawyers?

The New York Times wrote about it in 2008. The next thing, my phone was ringing off the wall. By 2009, law schools across the country, and then bar associations, wanted to develop incubators. 

The movement took off. It was a win-win for everyone since law grads created their own practices, clients secured affordable and competent representation, and law school employment stats rose.

Today there approximately 70 incubators that have spun off the CUNY model, which is almost hard for me to fathom.

Given my lifelong interest in travel, I applied for a Fulbright Scholar grant to see if CUNY’s incubator model could be replicated internationally. I went to the Dominican Republic and created the first legal incubator outside of the U.S.

Then I became a Fulbright Specialist, traveling back and forth to Islamabad, Pakistan, working on incubator development. 

Over the last decade, I’ve travelled all over the world to promote the incubator model. I’ve worked to help law grads who have a deep commitment to social justice create practices focused on providing representation to women, and to marginalized and vulnerable groups.  

In 2017, I began working with Roma communities in Spain and the Balkans. Historically, Roma communities throughout Europe lag far beyond in access to health, education,employment and justice. In a country like Spain, where there are approximately a million Roma people, the number of Roma lawyers is negligible. In Bulgaria, where we recently launched an incubator, the numbers are shockingly low. 

Prior to Covid, I generally flew around 125,000 miles a year. I came back from Spain and Morocco the second week of February, and I was scheduled to see my son in Portland, Oregon the following week.

That never happened. I’m now in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, landlocked like everyone else (for the first time in decades), unable to complete my Fulbright in Bulgaria, and I’ve postponed trips to countries like Argentina, Romania, Albania and Qatar.

I'm 67. Life goes by quickly. I remember when I was 18, I used to think I could change the world, right?

But I realized that even if I couldn't change the world, I should use my time on the planet to try to impact in a very positive way as many people as possible. Hopefully, I still have a lot of traction left, since I’m ready, willing and able to go.

I'm just waiting for the flights to be safe and travel affordable so I can get back “on the road again.”

7 other things worth your time

  • Not the Redtails, at least for now: the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins now says it will just be “Washington Football Team” for the 2020-21 season. (ESPN)

  • Remember Patrick Skinner, the CIA operative turned Savannah cop? He’s not impressed by the idea of federal officers in camouflage without name tags on the streets of U.S. cities. (Washington Post)

  • President Trump called off the Florida portion of the Republican National Convention due to the coronavirus pandemic. (SF Gate)

  • Human beings have simply been moving so much less since the pandemic began, that it led to a “wave of quietness” that sharpened the degree to which scientists can hear seismic noise, such as earthquakes. (Reuters)

  • Almost 60 percent of Americans who have gym memberships say they won’t renew them after the pandemic. (CNBC)

  • A 93-year-old former concentration camp guard, who was tried as a juvenile in a German court since he was only 17 during World War II, was convicted of being an accessory to murder. The case might be the last of a Holocaust perpetrator in a German court. (DW.com)

  • Thanks to Fred Rooney for being the first reader to do an “as told to” story today. Readers, I hope you’ll let me know what you think of the format. Also, this idea came about in part because Fred will be speaking today at a virtual conference on access to justice and legal incubators. If you’d like to check it out, here’s the link.

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