For decades, the discussion about access to justice has primarily focused on the ability of low–income individuals to obtain free representation by lawyers. Lawyer representation is the “gold star” of the legal profession and advocates of legal services for the poor have fought difficult battles to ensure the most disadvantaged in our country have access to these professionals. As a result, legal aid programs and pro bono services that assist the most economically disadvantaged in our country are now common in our legal service delivery system.
Despite those important efforts, only 50% of those eligible for free legal services actually receive them. Traditional access to justice platforms, while critical for offering legal assistance to a segment of the poor, have not been funded at levels that allow them to serve all those who need and qualify for their services. In lieu of lawyers, members of the legal profession have created self–help tools and substitutes for attorneys in the form of general advice hotlines, online document automation programs, and self–help law centers. If the profession correlates justice with lawyer representation, then the majority of average income Americans and a significant segment of the poor, are without it. In 2011 the United States ranked 50th out of 66 developed nations in providing accessibility to its civil justice system to its citizens.
In order to address the unmet legal needs of individuals in our country, the legal profession must advance an affordable legal services agenda that includes lawyers who provide competent legal services at reduced or “low bono” rates. Increased funding to help the poor and efforts to provide greater accessibility through the use of technology are efforts that can help bridge our justice gap. However, such efforts are limited in their scope. To make additional gains into providing more access to law, we need to devote attention to a segment of our society that currently receives no support and can potentially also benefit the near poor who go in and out of poverty. According to the research of an expert on U.S. poverty, “nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line).” These figures reveal that a larger segment of the population requires a legal system that understands the fluidity of poverty and their financial instability. A lower–cost legal service delivery system must exist for those priced out of free services who need lawyers to get them back into a more stable financial reality.
Law practices that offer services at low bono rates offer a lawyer alternative to the more than 81.4 million households that earned less than the median income of $51,017 in 2012. Many of these individuals make less than $25 per hour but make too much to qualify for free legal services. Like the poor, Americans of average means need lawyers to advise them about legal issues that arise in their everyday lives but many of them cannot afford lawyers who charge hourly rates that exceed $300 per hour. This chapter explores the need to build the framework that encourages the development of low bono law practices.
Part I helps us understand low bono and why it is a necessary component of a broader legal service delivery system. Part II discusses the challenges that lawyers face in building and maintaining low bono practices. It addresses the financial challenges of running low bono practices and identifies the necessary components for developing viable low bono business plans. Part III outlines the framework the legal profession can and should build to support low bono law practices. It addresses the assumption that an affordable legal fee necessitates a lower quality service. It calls law schools, bar associations and courts to devote resources to build the necessary infrastructure for the delivery of legal services to average means Americans. The chapter concludes with a brief reflection of why lawyers may choose to build a career as a low bono lawyer.
Citation: Herrera, Luz E., Encouraging the Development of ‘Low Bono’ Law Practices (May 2014). University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender & Class, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 1-49, 2014.