This article, Solo and Small Firm Attorneys Lack Time for Pro Bono, NYLJ (12/13/04) reports on some of the obstacles that solo and small firms face in meeting the recommended 20 hours/year of pro bono. The article lists the four top reasons lawyers gave for not participating in pro bono programs: the demand of time and resources; lack of expertise; lack of support staff; and lack of malpractice insurance for pro bono work. The article notes that bar groups can help address some of these issues, as they may provide malpractice coverage for pro bono work as well as informational resources to learn a new area.
But the article expresses a view that I’ve always had with respect to solos and pro bono: that many are already effectively meeting that obligation by forgiving bills or allowing installment payments:
Several small firm attorneys said they put substantial resources into “low bono” or “stealth pro bono” or “pro bono in disguise”: the client who cannot pay. Some consider it a form of community service.
Wiseman described one case in which a client paid him $10 a month toward a $4,000 bill until he forgave the remainder.
“I do consider that, frankly, a form of pro bono,” he said.
“My personal definition [of pro bono] is people who can’t afford our regular rate,” said Copp.
King, who chairs the Schenectady Bar Association’s pro bono committee, distinguishes pro bono from sliding-scale fees. She said her bar committee would discuss a “modest means” status for clients who do not qualify for legal aid but cannot afford a lawyer.
A reduced-rate system also provides a motive to settle litigation, said Adam Levy, of Levy, Santoro & Santoro, a four-attorney Putnam County firm.
“If you’re paying your lawyer, you want it to be short and sweet,” he argued.
Reduced-rate legal services do not qualify as pro bono under the current statewide definition, but some bar groups are working to change that.
Without the willingness of solo and smaller firms to cut fees to accomodate people of lesser means, many would go unserved since their incomes are too high to qualify for legal aid and their cases are simply not “sexy” enough to attract the interest of a large firm pro bono program. So the bars should formally recognize our contribution. On the other hand, some small firms do manage to perform pro bono in the traditional sense as reported in this companion article, Small Firm Make Pro Bono Mandatory.