By Michael B. Goldenkranz
There's been a lot of talk in the last few years about "access to justice." It often focuses on the need for poor people to get legal representation.
The Washington State Civil Legal Needs Study issued in June sadly reconfirmed that access to legal services has not improved significantly since 2003. Instead of 3.3 legal problems per household, the current Legal Needs Study found an average of 9.3 per household. The study looked at folks at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $23,000 for a single person or $47,000 for a family of four.
With experienced lawyers in our region charging upwards of $500 per hour, they have become a luxury for corporations and affluent individuals. Try paying "full pop" for a lawyer, especially in a litigated matter, if you are not earning upward of $200,000 per year. Sure, there is the contingency-fee exception, but rarely does that apply in cases other than personal injury or class actions.
So what about people who aren't poor, but also aren't affluent? There is an emerging trend for lawyers to work for those folks at reduced rates known as "low bono." Low bono as "an organized entity" is somewhere between incubation and infancy in its development. We have the WSBA Modest Means program, Seattle University's very small, but exciting, low bono incubator program for law students upon graduation, and our first WSBA Low Bono Section. Sadly, the King County Bar Association's former low-cost, fee program was shelved.
Like many start-up businesspeople, low bono attorneys often can't make it without support. Recently one very bright, idealistic local attorney told me of his chagrin at not being able to sign a lease for office space at $400 per month. He is committed to low bono and trying to establish a family law and Social Security disability practice.
Like him, other young lawyers fresh or recently out of law school seem the most willing to try a low bono practice. These same lawyers, however, in addition to facing the usual practice startup expenses, often have large education loans to pay off.
What can more established lawyers do to help them? Plenty, as it turns out. Young low bono lawyers need tools, support, and office space that is truly affordable and accessible.
"Wouldn't it be nice," as the Beach Boys sang, if large and medium-sized firms stepped up to the plate and offered lawyers committed to a low bono practice the use of some empty office space and conference rooms for $100 to $200 per month while they develop their practices? Better still, the firms could even defer collecting the rent until the newbie low bono lawyer has collected some fees or judgments.
For lawyers working from home, meeting clients at the local coffee shop gets old (and compromises confidentiality). Conference rooms in law firms often go unused. They could be made available to low bono lawyers at modest hourly rates. Ditto for unused offices for lawyers who don't need a full-time office yet.
Psychologists, social workers and counselors who practice less than full time have historically shared their offices with other colleagues doing the same or completing state-required internships. Perhaps part-time and semi-retired lawyers could do so as well.
I've been told (and granted, it's hearsay) that Westlaw and Lexis are still too expensive for these altruistic newbies embarking on low bono practices. I've not investigated pricing, but perhaps firms, law schools and bar associations can make those services available to those still idealistic enough to follow their passion and try to bridge the access divide, while hoping they'll be able to make a living.
I'm delighted there is a low bono committee now to come up with strategies, solutions and implementation means. I'm also painfully aware of how slow these processes can be, having sat on committees.
What can start immediately, though, is for firms, law libraries, law schools and bar associations to post notices in the local bar bulletins, Northwest Lawyer, and other media and venues where our young access-to-justice legal eagles look, listing office space, conference rooms, legal research applications and law practice deskbook help on easily afforded terms. Better yet, someone with the technical skills that I lack might put up a website that would serve as an online matching service for those with available facilities and needy low bono attorneys.
Finally, the Bar Bulletin should add to its classified ads a "Low Bono Office Space and Resources Available" heading.
Michael B. Goldenkranz is a Seattle attorney who volunteers in KCBA's Pro Bono Services programs.
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