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March 28, 2016

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The Changing Contours of “Low Bono”

by WSBA
A man and female attorney signing a document
Seattle attorney and WSBA section chair Forrest Carlson takes the “don’t know” out of Low Bono.

A man and female attorney signing a documentUp until very recently, whenever I asked other lawyers what they thought “low bono” meant, most ventured an uncertain guess along these lines: “Is it like pro bono, except instead of paying no fee, the client pays a low fee?”

This is a solid guess. After all, “low bono” is a back-formation of “pro bono,” perhaps the most prominent feature of which is the lack of payment to the lawyer for his or her work. At some point, someone replaced “pro” with “low,” and the phrase “low bono” started to refer to legal matters for which lawyers accepted a lower payment rather than no payment at all.

The trouble with that definition is that it’s outdated. It might have worked a decade ago, but things are different now. Lawyers who used to offer discounted rates or sliding fee scales to accommodate clients with limited financial means have been trying out — and adding to their practices — many other models for delivering legal services to these same clients. Today, the lawyers who refer to themselves as offering low bono services have expanded the contours of the concept, so “low bono” now means much more than just doing legal work for reduced fees.

Consider this handful of examples:

  • Unbundled legal services. Unbundling legal services means agreeing to perform only a limited scope of tasks for a client. This can have the effect of making legal services affordable for someone who could not afford to pay for full representation. Washington state’s rules framework recognizes and supports unbundling of legal services. In fact, the WSBA has published comprehensive explanations on its website to help lawyers get started unbundling. Many lawyers who offer unbundled legal services think of them as “low bono” services, even though the lawyers are not necessarily lowering their prices; instead, they’re limiting the scope of their work.
  • Improved efficiency. With significant improvements in technology, lawyers are now able to find many ways of also significantly improving the efficiency with which they handle each client matter. With streamlined client intake, automated document-drafting, timekeeping, and billing, and numerous other widely available practice management tools, lawyers can meaningfully reduce the time they have to spend on each matter. This means they can serve more clients and potentially offer services at lower rates that more consumers can afford.
  • Self-help. Some lawyers have taken advantage of the fact that publishing self-help tools and free (or low-cost) information on their websites is one way of providing resources to consumers with limited financial resources. These lawyers may bill at their full hourly rate for most or all of their work, but their websites can provide free or inexpensive assistance 24 hours a day to consumers who otherwise could not afford a lawyer.

These are just some examples of how lawyers consider themselves to be providing low bono services —and, notably, none of them necessarily involves lawyers earning a lower income than they would with a traditional hourly rate. In other words, the “low” in “low bono” no longer necessarily refers to a lawyer working for a low fee. Instead, it has come to refer to lowering any of the barriers which have historically prevented people with moderate financial means from accessing legal services.

On its home page, the WSBA’s Low Bono Section has provided a new working definition of “low bono,” which is brief and still captures the concept’s breadth and potential for ongoing growth: “Low bono is the principle of increasing access to law-related services for people of moderate means who do not qualify for pro bono assistance, but cannot afford the fees private attorneys typically charge under traditional law firm models.”

Is this definition a step in the right direction? What do you think?

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