Connecticut’s first legal incubator is due to open in early 2017 at the Center for Family Justice, a Bridgeport-based nonprofit that provides services to trauma survivors affected by domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse.
“A legal incubator is like a business incubator,” said Jennifer Ferrante, who has joined the Center for Family Justice staff as the coordinator for the new service. At the center’s office at 753 Fairfield Ave., “We are going to be housing four attorneys here on site,” she said. Two of the first attorneys who applied and were accepted in the program are recent law school graduates.
“They are their own bosses,” Ferrante said. “They have their own independent law practices. But we are going to be supporting them in multiple ways. We give them subsidized office space and supplies. We give them training in business management and provide them with networking and mentoring opportunities and referrals, along with a collaborative work environment. At the end of the two years, they will hopefully have all of the tools that they can go out into the community with a sustainable law practice and be able to go out and earn a living.”
Ferrante, a Westport resident, previously was a litigation associate at the white-shoe New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, where she offered pro bono services to clients of the domestic violence program Sanctuary for Families. She later joined the RAE (Rights, Advocacy and Empowerment) Law Group, a private nonprofit law practice in Connecticut dedicated to providing legal assistance to domestic and sexual violence victims.
Pioneering legal incubator model in Bridgeport, “I think it will give the low- and moderate-income community a real chance in getting their legal needs met and ending their cycles in abuse and poverty,” Ferrante said. “This is a relatively new model that started in 2007. There are over 60 legal incubator programs nationwide as well as programs popping up in other countries. When I saw this was happening here, I was excited about getting involved and lending a hand.”
Ferrante is also working with Connecticut law schools to help build the center’s legal apparatus. “We have several professors from Quinnipiac University on our steering committee and they helped set up the parameters of our program,” she said, adding that a pair of graduates from Quinnipiac and the University of Connecticut are slated to join the legal incubator next year.
Lawyers in the incubator program will provide the legal advices services and representation needed by victims of domestic violence, including restraining orders, divorce proceedings, child custody and support, housing and immigration issues.
One attorney joining the legal incubator in January is Larissa Johnson, a Haddam-based lawyer and 2008 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law, who learned of the opportunity through a posting at Idealist.org.
“I am looking forward to working with their clientele and addressing their legal needs,” Johnson said, adding that she appreciated the center’s role in helping her establish her own practice. “There are not a lot of support systems out there, and having a fellow attorney to reach out and ask for advice and support is very important.”
Planning for the legal incubator has been ongoing since 2009, and the Center for Family Justice raised more than $5 million through government funding and private donations to finance the endeavor. For the center, the influx of new attorneys to assist violence victims could not have come at a better time.
“At the Golden Hill Courthouse (in Bridgeport) on the criminal side, they saw 2,500 victims in last fiscal year,” said Angela Schlingheyde, the center’s director of civil legal and court advocacy services. “It is not that there is more domestic violence. It is that more people are realizing that services are available to them and are coming forward. It is still grossly underreported, as is sexual violence and child abuse. “
“Our civil legal program is still very young,” Schlingheyde said. “I came in 2015 to start it. Although we’ve made strides, we are far from being able to assist every client in need with the depth of legal assistance that they need.”
Although the Center for Family Justice is focused on serving six Fairfield County municipalities – Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford and Trumbull – it also welcomes those seeking help from elsewhere in the state. Debra Greenwood, center president and CEO, noted that while the addition of the legal incubator will help violence victims in their pursuit of justice, it will also complement ongoing efforts to ensure that victims can move forward with their lives with a new level of economic self-sufficiency.
“They will continue to keep going through the system if they are not able to find a job or write a resume,” she said. “We want them to be able to feed themselves and their children and to consider what the future will hold. Otherwise, they will go back to the same abusive relationship.”
Greenwood credited corporate philanthropic support from Verizon and volunteer input from business professionals in the community – including job placement officers – with helping residents aided by the Center for Family Justice to become productive members of the workforce.
“If we don’t do our job in making sure someone can survive on their own, they could become homeless again,” she said. “We know that 92 percent of individuals that get out of abusive situations become homeless – that’s a national statistic.”