Pro Bono: A Better Alternative

By Josh Sheptow
Saturday, December 31, 2005

I am a student at Stanford Law School, where I participate in that school's Volunteer Attorney Program, or VAP. My job is to interview low-income clients, write memos describing their situation and pass them along to the real attorneys, who include a number of partners and associates at Silicon Valley's most prestigious law firms. These attorneys, already overworked, donate their time to help our clients get whatever legal relief might be available.

I am inspired by the dedication and sacrifice of the attorneys involved in the VAP program. But I also believe that pro bono work by elite lawyers is a staggeringly inefficient way to provide legal services to low-income clients. And since almost every major law firm in the country has its attorneys devote some of their time to pro bono work, my criticism is as relevant in Washington or New York as it is in Palo Alto.

My argument is straightforward. First, note that there are nonprofits such as the Legal Aid Society that do nothing but provide free legal services to low-income clients. Their offices are not fancy and their attorneys command much lower salaries than their counterparts at large, prestigious law firms. As a result, it costs these organizations (or, more accurately, their donors) less than $100 for each hour of legal services they provide to low-income clients.

Now consider a lawyer who charges paying clients $500 an hour (roughly the going rate for an upper-level associate at a large corporate law firm). If she donated 10 hours of fees to Legal Aid, she could fund roughly 50 hours of legal service to low-income clients. That's five times the amount of service she could provide if she spent those 10 hours doing pro bono work herself. Thus it is much more efficient for her, and for high-priced lawyers generally, to donate their fees rather than their time.

Some might object that a move away from pro bono work by elite lawyers would mean less-competent representation for low-income clients. After all, why should only rich corporations have access to the most skilled attorneys?

But in fact large, prestigious law firms focus mainly on complicated financial transactions and high-stakes litigation. Most low-income clients have little use for experts in these areas. They need attorneys who are skilled at fighting off predatory lenders or negotiating custody disputes. This is where the staff attorneys at Legal Aid come in. They work for low-income clients full time. They have much more experience with the issues those clients care about than do their peers at elite corporate firms. And in truth, Legal Aid attorneys are likely to provide low-income clients with representation that is as good, or perhaps even better, than elite corporate lawyers.

For lawyers who have done pro bono work, cutting a check might not seem as glamorous as getting out in the trenches and helping low-income clients face to face, but it's a much more efficient way to deliver legal services to those in need.

The writer is a law student at Stanford University.

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