Want to Do Good and Make a Living? Consider Low Bono

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Law students often see themselves working at a public interest or legal-services setting. But after graduation, few new lawyers end up following that path. One study found just 4% of newer lawyers working in a public interest or legal services. Why might this be?

Certainly, it is not for lack of demand or the need for access to justice. Since the Great Recession, the need for affordable legal services has continued to grow, while governments continue to cut funding. Not only do these cuts harm people who can’t afford a lawyer, they also make finding a job in public-interest law and legal services increasingly difficult. Dwindling opportunities discourage newer lawyers from pursuing a career focused on social justice, even though their skills are badly needed.

Ideally, public-interest law organizations would receive necessary funding to provide at least adequate access to justice, but that has never happened. Who knows what will happen to funding in the next four years. So what’s an idealistic new lawyer to do?

Start a business! Specifically, start a law practice using a low-bono business model. (If you don’t know what low-bono means, read this post for a great summary.)

This advice might come as a surprise. After all, almost all public-interest and legal-service organizations are nonprofits, which pay their bills with government and private grants, not client fees. And most law students (and lawyers in general) don’t think of themselves as business people, especially those who want to serve clients who can’t afford a lawyer. As counterintuitive to lawyers as it may seem, starting a low-bono practice can be a rewarding way to serve low-income clients, while also gaining valuable experience.

Low-bono law practices use a variety of tools (lowering fees being only one among many) to make legal services accessible and affordable to lower-income clients. Additionally, a low-bono is a great way to serve “gap clients” or people with income too high to be eligible for legal services but too low to hire a lawyer charging typical fees—in other words, most people. Even if you decide that you don’t want to run your own business over the long term, doing so is still a great way to gain experience and show your commitment to lower-income clients.

Of course, starting a business can be intimidating. Fortunately there are many resources in Washington to help lawyers thinking about starting a low bono law practice, including:

  • The WSBA Low Bono Section provides a forum for education, sharing forms, referrals, and practice advice; and for members: free mentorship opportunities, discounted admission to low-bono-oriented CLEs, opportunities for networking and leadership development opportunities, and more!
  • The Low Bono Conference on Feb. 25 is a full-day conference about how to run a flourishing law practice with a commitment to serving clients with limited financial resources.