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.