The Reality of Low-Bono Law Practice


There are plenty of people who need a lawyer but can’t afford one at the going rates. In theory, that leaves a huge market of under-served legal consumers. And there seem to be plenty of idealistic new and out-of-work lawyers who see that as an opportunity to build a “low-bono” practice.

Well, I know two lawyers who are actually doing it, and it’s not quite so simple.

A while back, I sat down with Minneapolis lawyers Emily Cooper and Tracy Reid to talk about their low-bono law practice.

Cooper and Reid use a sliding-fee scale for all their clients. Every client who walks in the door gets a fee he or she can afford based on their income. Their target market is, basically, people who fall into the gap between between free legal services and the cost of a regular lawyer. I know from my own experience that there are plenty of people in that gap. It’s more like a canyon, really. Cooper and Reid focus on family law, disability law, and victims of abuse, which means there are plenty of potential clients.

Before going into business together, Cooper and Reid worked together at Legal Aid, and Emily had worked in private practice for about 10 years before that. Together, they have 21 years of law practice experience. In other words, they knew what they were doing before they hung out their shingle.

That experience is pretty important. Serving clients at discounted rates means you have to be efficient in order to preserve any kind of a profit margin. That kind of efficiency takes a lot of experience. So does dealing with all the ethical issues that arise from dealing with vulnerable clients.

Low-bono practice is also a lot harder than a regular practice, for other reasons. Cooper and Reid describe their practice as “dealing with human tragedy” on a daily basis. A lot of mental illness, too. Their clients are almost always in crisis — which sometimes means trying cases even though you’ve just been hired. Plus, they point out, you do not get the same benefits as you would if you worked for a non-profit, like loan-repayment assistance or the deference from judges that Legal Aid lawyers often enjoy.

Cooper and Reid are committed to their practice — and each other. They have successfully “split” a trial between them, because they can quickly step into one another’s shoes, even in the middle of trial. They both say their practice is extremely stressful, and neither of them is getting rich doing it (they think a reasonable ballpark salary for a low-bono lawyer is $30–40,000). But they believe in what they are doing.

As they put it, if you have a lot of experience and skills when you start a low-bono practice, “you are going to be poor for a very long time.” Low-bono law practice is not about idealism, they say, it is a slog. If you aren’t realistic, it won’t work.

On top of working your tail off for your clients, of course, you still have to run a business and network like crazy. Cooper and Reid spend a ton of time networking to build their referral base. And they rely on Clio to help them stay on top of their cases. But, first and foremost, they focus on serving their clients.

If it’s not clear, a low-bono practice is a ton of work, and a ton of stress, and it does not pay very well. Cooper and Reid plan to take time out a couple of times each year to go on vacation together and decompress. Without that, they would probably go crazy.

While there is definitely a need for lawyers willing to serve the gap between Legal Aid and private practice, it is an extremely high-pressure need to fill. Low-bono practice is not a “sexy” alternative to “regular” law practice. It is a huge responsibility most lawyers aren’t ready for. Not everyone is cut out for it. Most new lawyers are definitely not cut out for it.


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  • Neil Tyra

    And it does take a toll on you. In particular, I get stressed when clients who are getting a huge break in the cost of legal services seem to be ungrateful and ever demanding. To a certain extent, it comes with a low bono practice. But there are more of these types of clients than there ought to be.

  • Ezra

    As a brazilian (last semester) law student – and firmly considering the solo practice for next year – aware of the huge differences between my country legal system and yours, I wonder how the Bar Associations face these low bono practices. I know the São Paulo Bar Association (OAB-SP) has fixed a price for every kind of legal services an attorney may offer, and you cannot charge less than they say you should, otherwise you might end up an ethical charge…

    • That would seem to foreclose a low-bono practice, unless there is any allowance made for lowering prices based on need. Cooper and Reid do an income assessment for every client, which is how they determine the fee.

  • TryingToGoSolo

    Thanks for this post! Glad to know I’m not the only one doing this
    (or should I say TRYING to do it!) and to have it basically confirmed
    or at least strongly implied that it’s hard, cuts your pay a lot, and
    not for everyone. I “opened” my shingle just back in May, doing this low
    bono concept (though I never heard it coined that way before – clever
    and TRUE!) together with my Virtual Law Office (VLO) options, which I
    think the two almost have to go hand in hand because how else could one
    afford to provide such low cost services and survive, especially as a
    solo with no staff?

    I, myself, use 1) Total Attorneys practice management software which comes with a VERY nice online client portal where most of the magic happens, though I’m sure
    the others like Clio, MyCase, Rocket Matter, etc. offer too but much more expensive; 2) GoogleChat, Skype, and other free video conference platforms; and 3) Google Voice (which besides the main purpose/benefits also allows for texting from your business number). These are just to name a FEW of the PLETHORA of programs, mechanisms, software, and concepts I am running all together in order to maintain such a practice

  • gregstaffa

    It’s too that there are not more lawyers like we see in the movies. We live in a world that revolves around money. The more money you have the more justice you can get. Some beauty pageant contestant says something bad about Donald Trump and he sues and wins 5 million. Had that happened to someone poor and something bad was said nothing would happen. For 3 years I was homeless in Minnesota. During which I was harassed, bullied and slandered by a nationally known homeless advocate. The harassment pushed me to the brink of suicide. But legally defamation and slander are tricky and when you are/were homeless lawyers go running. So instead were told nothing can be done. My hope was to find a lawyer to make a settlement offer to this homeless advocate. The documents I have on the things he has done to homeless while not “illegal” would destroy his image and that of the charity he founded. Heck the reason I became homeless was Delta/NWA voided my contract saying any injury I got was from being fat and let me go. Even after a work comp judge ruled my weight had nothing to do with my injury Delta/NWA still ignored my contract and I lost everything. Had I not become homeless and lost everything I could have afforded a lawyer to make sure my union contract was followed. Point is. I’ve learned a lot during my 3 years homeless. You lose a lot of trust in people and especially lawyers. Justice may be blind but she isn’t deaf. She can hear the money in your pocket. And if she can’t hear any, you get no justice