By Claudine Benmar, Assistant Director of Communications & Public Relations, Seattle University Law School
For wealthy Americans in need of legal help, there’s no shortage of lawyers at their disposal. And for impoverished Americans, pro bono lawyers or public defenders are often able to step in. But what about those who fall somewhere in between?
An emerging trend in legal services is the “low bono” practice, in which lawyers offer reduced fees to low- and moderate-income clients. Seattle University School of Law launched an innovative program in 2013 to help prepare lawyers who can fill this need.
The Low Bono Incubator, now in its fourth year, offers financial assistance, continuing legal education, and mentorship to a select group of graduates who are committed to serving less affluent clients but need a helping hand to launch their businesses. Fifteen alumni have now completed the program, building small and solo law practices that handle everything from bankruptcy to immigration cases.
Amy Wilburn Morseburg, a 2014 graduate of the law school and a low bono lawyer, compared the work of low bono attorneys to her former career in education. “When I was teaching, I had a special place in my heart for those ‘fall through the cracks’ kids — not the ones failing out, not the ones excelling on their own, and not the special needs kids. There were services for all those folks,” she said. “It’s the steady C and D students, the ones just barely making it, who need an extra hand.”
One of Morseburg’s clients, for example, was a veteran who had a good job and a regular paycheck but was still living in his car, effectively homeless, because he couldn’t afford first and last months’ rent on an apartment. Aggressive creditors were garnishing his wages to repay debt he accumulated after being released from service in the United States Army.
“A friend referred him to me and I offered him a 50 percent reduction in my fees. I was able to secure Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection for him,” she said. “Two weeks later, he was in an apartment and he’s there to this day. He’s doing very well.”
Although some large law firms have experimented with offering low bono services, this corner of the legal market is largely filled by lawyers in solo or small practices. That’s where the law school comes in. By offering vital assistance for 12 months, the Low Bono Incubator helps fledgling practices evolve into self-sustaining, thriving businesses.
Incubator grantees receive a $3,000 stipend, office space in downtown Seattle, peer support from others in their cohort, free subscriptions to case management software, and legal education workshops tailored to their specific needs – business management, marketing, using social media, protecting client confidentiality, and software tips.
Perhaps the most important part of the program though, is the mentorship from seasoned attorneys like Stan Perkins, a successful personal injury attorney in Seattle whose financial support sustains the incubator.
As a mentor for the incubator lawyers, Perkins offers guidance on the business side of lawyering and meets with the program participants every two weeks to check on their progress.
John Varga, a 2012 graduate of the law school who specializes in estate planning, said he tried operating his own law practice for a few months before he realized how useless his legal knowledge was without business smarts. Perkins helped him become a business owner in addition to a lawyer.
“When we first started meeting with him, he mentioned that he was working on a redesign for his website,” Varga said. “I realized, ‘Wow, this guy’s been doing this for 30 years but he’s not complacent. He’s still tweaking things and trying to make his practice a little bit better every day.’ You have to wake up every day and figure out where the next client is going to come from.”
That includes updating a website, going to networking events, and taking the time to meet new people and make new business connections.
For Perkins, who graduated from the law school in 1985, it’s an opportunity to shape the next generation of lawyers.
“I have always been so grateful to the experienced lawyers who took time out of their busy schedules to mentor me when I first went out on my own 30 years ago. I really couldn’t have made it without them,” he said. “The opportunity for me to help in this process and to encourage our incubatees’ entrepreneurial spirit has been very rewarding.”
Varga said an important part of being a low bono lawyer is learning how to keep your costs low. That includes using technology like practice management software to replace the tasks usually done by staff at large law firms. His scheduling, for example, is done with a web-based calendar tool rather than by an assistant.
By restructuring their practices to accommodate moderate-income clients, these low bono lawyers may end up reshaping the legal industry.
“There are too many lawyers and they’re all chasing the people who can pay full freight,” Varga said. “But the reality is that most people can’t afford that. I’m happy to be part of this group of lawyers recognizing the reality and trying to do something different. I don’t know what the future of law is going to look like, but I’m sure that if those of us working on it now develop thriving practices, then other people will imitate it.”
A 2015 study of civil legal needs in the state of Washington found that 7 in 10 low-income households face at least one significant legal problem each year. Most of them – 76 percent – face that problem without the help of a lawyer. Low bono lawyers can help address that justice gap.
Seattle University is the only law school in the state to offer a low bono incubator program. “As a Jesuit institution, we are committed to meeting the legal needs of under-served communities,” said Dean Annette Clark. “We’re also committed to helping our graduates find meaningful work. This innovative program is a way for us to do both.”