In recognition of National Pro Bono Week, I’m taking a minute to share what pro bono means to me as a solo practitioner and the owner of a virtual law office. Kate Bladow from Technola pointed me to this report from the Bellow-Sacks Project at Harvard which advocates a holistic approach of applying multiple forms of delivering legal services to serve the public.
With my own practice I provide a combination of pro bono, “low bono” and unbundled legal services on my virtual law office. I also try to stay flexible with my clients who fall into these different categories in terms of what and when they pay for their services which allows them to budget for their legal needs. For example, I am willing to break the payments from a client down to $50 a month and spread it out over the course of several months. The amount of pure pro bono work that I provide will increase as my practice grows and I have more resources to devote to it.
The meaning of pro bono has changed for me. To be honest, pro bono work never crossed my mind while in law school. Similar to probably the majority of the students in my law school class, I was focused on landing a high-paying job after passing the bar and paying off the massive student loans. I was under the assumption that a legal aid career path would not provide me with a way to pay off my loans and allow me the freedom to start a family. So, I pushed the idea of offering pro bono services to the side assuming that once I found that ideal law firm job it might be something the firm engaged, and I would learn more about it at that time.
I did not consider adding pro bono work until a few years into my virtual law practice. At my first job in a small law firm, we would get two or three phone calls a week from individuals who needed basic legal assistance. As the youngest associate in the firm, these calls would most often be sent my way. I quickly discovered that the work these folks needed to have done was not something that the local legal aid office handled or that those individuals calling would not qualify for services there. I wasn’t sure what should happen to these folks and that bothered me. It was one of the motivations behind creating my virtual law office – so that I could use technology to find a way to provide more affordable legal services to more of the public.
When I started my solo virtual law office, I found ways to take on some of the smaller legal matters that used to come through to the traditional law firm and handle them online as unbundled legal services. Still, I am limited to my specific practice areas. For many of the cases that come onto my virtual law office asking for pro bono assistance, I’m not sure where to send them. That’s a problem that should have a solution by now.
Being a solo and interacting with more prospective clients on my own has given me a better understanding of the kinds of basic legal services the public needs. Ideally, everyone in our country would have access to full legal representation whether or not they could pay for the services. Until that happens, I think we should expand awareness of other alternative methods of providing legal services to those who need it.
For a solo on a tight budget with steep student loans, it may not be possible to devote a lot of time to strictly pro bono work. However, a combination of taking pro bono cases with low bono cases and unbundling legal services at more affordable rates might be a more realistic goal. I urge more attorneys with virtual law practices to think outside the box about how they could deliver pro bono and low bono legal services to clients through the use of technology.