LeanLaw CEO Gary Allen wrote for the Idaho Statesman about pro bono work for lawyers. Instead of insisting that it’s an honorable thing to do, Gary pushed the envelope: he asked whether pro bono work is the salve that masks the problem that most people can’t afford lawyers. If overhead could be lowered, there could be more justice for all.
Pro Bono Is Not Enough
The term “pro bono,” is short for pro bono publico, a Latin term that translates as “for the public good.” In the legal profession, pro bono work refers to the services that lawyers provide for free to people who cannot afford it. Lawyers feel the duty to provide pro bono services, which is great. But we need to ask a hard question: is pro bono just a salve that masks a much larger problem? Pro Bono does not even come close to filling the gap for people who can’t afford lawyers. Additionally, many lawyers cannot afford to provide pro bono work.
This may sound counterintuitive or somewhat of a lame excuse. Most people assume that lawyers make so much because they charge so much. But many lawyers are drowning in overhead. The legal profession is one of the last parts of our economy to modernize, often resulting in overhead of 50% of revenue or more. This means that for every dollar a lawyer earns, 50 cents or more goes into covering costs such as office rent, support staff and office supplies. If lawyers could reduce their overhead, they could not only afford to do more pro bono work, they could also provide lower cost services so more people could afford to use a lawyer.
In the United States, 80% of people are unable to afford a lawyer in their time of need. Navigating the legal system requires skilled help and “justice for all” is often lost when you don’t have a lawyer. Lawyers need to modernize the operations of their law practices, saving themselves time and money and creating new workflows that could extend lower cost services to a much greater number of people.
When you walk into most law firms, you will see oceans of paper along with lots of people needed to manage all that paper. This is a symptom of outmoded workflows that can be fixed with non-exotic technology plus a willingness to do things in new ways.
I know a lawyer who used to have over $11,000 in overhead each month. He left his big law firm and now works with a partner and has only $2,500 in monthly expenses. He no longer has a secretary, but since he upgraded his technology and his work habits, he no longer needs one. He is hardly a techie, by the way. He has more work than he can handle and more satisfaction with that work, knowing that his overhead is extremely low. By the way, he does pro bono work and contributes significantly to the community.
If lawyers operate lean law practices, they have the opportunity to fulfill the lofty goal of providing legal services to those who cannot afford them. Since they will increase their income thanks to lower overhead, they can afford to offer more pro bono work. And to a greater extent, they can offer lower prices to a larger clientele. Everyone wins.
By all means, lawyers should do pro bono work. But “justice for all” requires a much broader transformation of the profession.