February 18, 2020 Feature

When Less Is More: What You Can Gain from Pro Bono and Low Bono Work

Sheila-Marie Finkelstein

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Doing pro bono and low bono work improves attorneys’ skill set, exposes them to different types of clients or cases, and expands their network.

Doing pro bono and low bono work improves attorneys’ skill set, exposes them to different types of clients or cases, and expands their network.

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I was raised to be of service to others and have a particular passion for veterans because of my family service history. I have four grandparents who served in the armed forces (my 98-year-old grandmother was one of the first women in the Navy), and my mother has been a registered nurse at the Long Beach Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital for almost 30 years. I received my official VA volunteer ID around the age of ten, and I clerked for the U.S. Air Force JAG during law school. All of this led me to seek VA accreditation as an attorney.

Given my expertise in estate planning and desire to help our heroes, I founded the Pro Bono Estate Clinic at the Veterans Legal Institute to provide peace and end-of-life planning for low-income, elderly, and terminally ill veterans. In recognition of these efforts, I was the inaugural recipient of the California Lawyers Association Solo and Small Firm Excellence in Service Award, which was awarded based on several peer nominations due to my extensive and continual service in the legal community. It is incredibly meaningful to me because it acknowledges the importance and positive impact of my “giving back” and “paying it forward.” (Please watch a clip from the ceremony and read more information about the California Lawyers Association Solo and Small Firm Section.)

Why Does This Matter?

Doing pro bono work is an immensely satisfying way to positively impact the community, and it is also an opportunity to learn more about the practice of law. Pro bono work provides significant professional development because it can improve attorneys’ skill set, expose them to different types of clients or case matters, and expand their network. This article explores the professional and societal impact of using legal skills to give back and pay it forward.

Why Did You Become a Lawyer?

Some lawyers became attorneys because they wanted to make the “big bucks”; they are often quite disappointed to experience the opposite upon graduating from law school with a mountain of debt and slim to no “big bucks” employment opportunities in sight. However, most lawyers became attorneys because they wanted to pursue justice, right wrongs, or otherwise improve the world. They recognized that a legal education can provide them with the knowledge necessary to make a difference. Attorneys have a special set of skills and knowledge, which when combined with the right mind-set can have a significant positive impact on society.

What Is “Pro Bono” Work?

Pro bono literally translates to “for the public good” and refers to performing uncompensated legal services especially for the public good. Pro bono work, like any charitable work or good deed, can be personally satisfying and fulfilling in and of itself. But the positive impact on the community cannot be underestimated. Pro bono attorneys provide much-needed access to justice to those who otherwise would fall through the cracks or, worse, suffer great injustice solely because of their low socioeconomic status. The need for pro bono legal services is so great that most states, counties, and bar associations provide “pro bono law firms” (also known as “legal aid”), where indigent clients can receive legal services for free based on economic need. For example, in Orange County, California, where I practice, there are several such organizations, including, but not limited to, the Community Legal Aid of SoCal, Elder Law and Disability Rights Center, Public Law Center, and Veterans Legal Institute, which provides legal services solely for veterans and servicemembers. Even the local bar association provides a wide variety of attorney volunteer opportunities.

Clerkships and staff positions at these pro bono firms are extremely competitive and highly sought after (despite their minimal pay or sometimes volunteer-only nature), not only because attorneys want to do good in the world, but also because pro bono work is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the practice of law and to improve an attorney’s skill set. While inexperienced attorneys will likely make more at Big Law, they will spend years working solely on research and mundane legal tasks before they are eventually granted minimal responsibility for any given case. In pro bono practices, on the other hand, the attorney is almost immediately thrown into the action and must rapidly gain the necessary legal skills to sink or swim. It is precisely this immediate and prolonged exposure to various types of legal issues and experiences that affords attorneys the opportunity to learn and grow and expand their legal skills and mind-set.

Can You Afford to Take a Pro Bono Case?

Although most attorneys can afford to provide at least a limited amount of pro bono work, very few attorneys are in the position where they can work entirely for free. All must cover the cost of their license and insurance fees, the typical debilitating student loans (aka, “mortgage on the brain”), as well as the cost of living. So, the question becomes, how much pro bono work can the attorney afford? This particular calculation is entirely dependent on the unique circumstances of each individual attorney. Also, the determining factors are dynamic, so the amount of pro bono work that attorneys can handle may fluctuate from time to time, as their practice develops. One rough estimate that may work for some is a “tithing” formula, where 10 percent of their clients are pro bono.

If the attorney is not able to provide pro bono work at all, one option to consider is joining the board of a charitable organization or bar association. In this way, attorneys are able to use their knowledge and skills for the benefit of the charitable organization/bar association, without incurring the costs associated with specific legal representation.

Another option to consider is “low bono” work.

What Is “Low Bono” Work?

Low bono refers to legal services performed at “below market” cost. For example, attorneys may reduce their hourly rate from $350 per hour to $150 per hour for a low bono client. Generally speaking, attorneys can afford to perform significantly more low bono work than they can pro bono work, and most clients can afford to pay something but not necessarily market rates for legal services. There is value in clients paying what they can for a service. In many situations, low bono is actually more effective because both the attorney and the client have “skin in the game.” (One common difficulty in pro bono law firms is inconsistent client communication; matters often get held up due to lack of communication from one’s own client!) By nature, people are far less appreciative and understanding of an attorney’s time when they get it for free versus when they pay something for it.

For example, people who own a home should be able to pay something for a trust estate plan, even if it’s a lesser amount in installments instead of a flat fee.

Performing low bono work provides the client access to justice at an affordable rate while providing more and varied experience to the attorney. This is a particularly effective tactic for a new attorney looking to gain experience and still “pay the bills.” Experienced attorneys may not often “seek out” pro bono clients but may continue working with clients who can no longer pay, just for the experience and/or to see the case through.

Another option to consider is taking on clients who can’t afford to pay but have a potential recovery. An example might be taking a probate matter where the assets are personal property that the client believes has value; in such cases, there is no guarantee that the client is right about this value or that the attorney will ever be paid.

How to Find Pro Bono or Low Bono Clients

Generally speaking, it is very easy to find pro bono clients. The recommended method for doing so is in connection with an established organization or legal aid clinic. This way the potential clients are already vetted in terms of economic need and matter type. Also, the work performed for the client through the legal aid organization/law school clinic will generally be covered by the organization’s liability insurance. Finally, these organizations typically have support structures in place to help lawyers learn new practice areas from experienced attorneys in the subject matter.

These same organizations, as well as services such as the Orange County Bar Association Lawyer Referral & Information Service, are also a great resource for finding low bono clients. The organizations need attorneys to represent potential clients who seek out the services of a legal aid provider but do not necessarily meet the income qualifications. Even though the potential clients are “over” the income limit, they do not have the disposable income to pay the market rate for the legal assistance they need. This creates a difficulty in the access to justice; low bono work helps fill this void.

Another option is for attorneys to provide legal advice/resources to groups in which they are already involved, such as at their place of worship, mountain biking club, community center, etc.

Expanding Your Network Through Pro Bono and Low Bono Work

Attorneys incorporate pro bono/low bono activity into their practice for various reasons. Aside from the desire to give back or gain experience, often-overlooked motivations include the opportunity to do something new and stimulating, network with particular groups, or get involved in a particular cause. Often the practice of law and associated organizations are an “old boys club.” It can be difficult to break into a long-standing group that is wary of outsiders who “want something from them.” However, these groups are more accepting of “strangers” if the outsider attempts to enter the organization from a place of giving; people are naturally attracted to others who are interested and demonstrative of similar core values. Offering pro bono/low bono services provides an opportunity to build relationships, become a resource, establish trust, and ultimately garner referrals.

As a personal example, community involvement in pro bono/low bono work literally launched my career. It was my involvement in supporting Talmudic values, women’s rights, and our military servicemembers and veterans that propelled me to leadership in the Orange County legal community; these connections subsequently provided me with the encouragement and resources to launch my law firm. The Jewish values of tzedakah (justice), mitzvot (good deeds), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) are such driving forces in my career that they are specifically enumerated in my business plan. Namely, for every full-fee estate plan I create, I make a charitable contribution in the community. In 2018, I contributed more than 300 pro bono hours, more than $6,000, and more than 50 completed pro bono estate plans.

What Are the Best Cases to Enhance Your Practice?

The best cases to enhance your practice are the cases in the subject matter for which you are interested in improving your knowledge and skills, or in the areas in which you would like to increase your presence and name recognition. For example, an attorney in a construction litigation firm may take an asylum case in order to have a positive impact on a cause they support. Or perhaps the attorney may become a Veterans Affairs–Accredited Attorney to help veterans navigate the bureaucratic maze of service-related benefits and health care. Regardless of how you connect with pro bono/low bono clients, you need to vet them the same as you would any client: namely conflict checks and compatibility. Is this a client you want to/are able to work with? If not, it is unwise to accept the engagement as you may find yourself resenting your client or performing inferior work because the client is unappreciative and you know you won’t be paid your market rate.

The Impact of Giving Back

The impact of giving back is difficult to fully realize. Providing necessary legal assistance at little or no cost is literally life saving for many pro bono clients and can be life altering for the attorney. For example, in the few years the Veterans Legal Institute has been in existence, it has provided free legal assistance to more than 6,000 veterans. This would not have been possible without the efforts of hundreds of volunteers. My pro bono practice not only launched my career, but through increased exposures to various types of clients and matters it also enabled me to become a California Bar Certified Specialist earlier than I could have in private practice alone—proof that pro bono work is both personally and professionally rewarding.

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Sheila-Marie Finkelstein is the principal at AHAVA Law, P.C. She is a VA-Accredited attorney and certified by the CalBar Board of Legal Specialization in Estates, Trusts & Probate Law. She is the OCBA Veterans and Military Committee “VetCom” chair, OC Jewish Bar Association president, and member of the Veterans Legal Institute Executive Board. She previously served on the OCBA Young Lawyers Division Board and the OC Women Lawyers Association Executive Board.

Published in GPSolo, Volume 37, Number 1, January/February 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.