Fulbright alumnus Fred Rooney is a social worker-turned-lawyer who the American Bar Association has called the "father of incubators" for his work to advance the legal incubator movement in the United States. Through his work, he has helped law students and early career attorneys develop the practical skills to set up solo law practices while providing affordable legal services to the underserved. Legal incubators are designed to help increase access to justice for vulnerable groups and marginalized communities. The American Bar Association reports that there are over 60 incubators across the United States.
Through the Fulbright Program, Rooney took this idea abroad, working with institutions in the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, and, most recently, Bulgaria, to establish their own legal incubators.
As a Fulbright Specialist to Bulgaria in 2018, Rooney worked with the Equal Opportunities Initiative Association (EOIA), a non-profit organization that works to advance inclusion for Bulgaria’s minority Roma community. While there, he advised partners on the legal incubator model, met with members of Bulgaria’s legal and non-profit communities, and consulted with EOIA staff on an implementation plan to launch what would be Bulgaria’s first legal incubator, which aims to improve Roma access to legal services. He recently received a Fulbright Scholar award to return to Bulgaria, where he will conduct research and continue to work with EOIA staff and advocates within the Roma community to support the incubator’s development.
In its initial phase, this incubator in Sofia will train four to six Roma lawyers committed to public interest law in underserved communities. Through a mentorship program, the incubator will also support the formation of community-based law practices, help early career lawyers develop a client base and provide pro bono and low-cost services.
WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING AS A FULBRIGHT SCHOLAR IN BULGARIA?
Building on my work as a Fulbright Specialist, I'll be going to Bulgaria to assist in the implementation of a legal incubator for Roma law graduates and others who support a more egalitarian society. As part of that, I'm planning to travel around Bulgaria and visit other Roma communities, so I can assess their issues and understand the level of access to justice that exists outside the capital. During the rest of the time, I'll work on the logistics of the project – to include finding a space to house the incubator, developing ways to recruit lawyers for the pilot program, and connecting with potential stakeholders -- such as the law schools, courts, bar association and judiciary, NGOs and other potential funders. The idea is to, eventually, replicate the Sofia legal incubator in other parts of the country.
WOULD YOU SAY THAT YOUR SPECIALIST PROJECT PREPARED YOU FOR YOUR SCHOLAR GRANT?
Absolutely. The Specialist grant allowed me to develop insight into Bulgaria and its legal system and pave the way for me to return as a Scholar.
WHAT DREW YOU TO A SHORTER-TERM OPPORTUNITY LIKE THE FULBRIGHT SPECIALIST PROGRAM?
For many people, it's hard to be away from home and/or work for nine months. It upended my life even though I wasn't that far from home. I think people dream of an opportunity to be a Scholar but the time investment can be a deterrent. The Specialist grant offers an attractive alternative for professionals.
AS A LAWYER, DO YOU THINK PROGRAMS LIKE FULBRIGHT ARE A GOOD FIT FOR THE LEGAL COMMUNITY?
I do! It's not just great for lawyers but also for judges and other members of the legal community. I try to talk about the Fulbright Program wherever I go - the skills many lawyers have built over their professional careers would be valued in other countries. Also, there's so much we can learn from other cultures to bring back here.
HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH FULBRIGHT CHANGED YOUR OUTLOOK ON YOUR WORK HERE? HOW DOES IT AFFECT U.S. CITIZENS AND U.S. COMMUNITIES?
Fulbright creates lifelong friendships. Lawyers who have visited the United States as a result of my Scholar and Specialist work have created lifelong personal and professional relationships with U.S.-based lawyers, judges and NGO leaders. In many ways, being able to build bridges by linking individuals from diverse walks of life and organizations designed to serve human needs can be more effective than efforts made by government officials or career diplomats. In my opinion, the greatest achievement of Fulbright programming flows from the people-to-people relationships that are created around the globe.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE WHO IS CONSIDERING APPLYING TO THE FULBRIGHT SPECIALIST PROGRAM?
I would tell them it's the best way I've ever been able to give back to this country. Participating in Fulbright has been the highlight of my professional life, and to live and work abroad has been transformative to me on a personal level. If not for Fulbright, I would not have been able to replicate the legal incubator model outside of the United States. Learning from my own experience, my message to everyone I meet can best be summed up as “Don't be intimidated. Apply.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.