A middle ground between pro rates and pro bono

Monday, March 30, 2015

TYLA eNews  |  By Trish McAllister, TAJC Executive Director

We talk a lot about pro bono work.

Many of the most successful initiatives here at the Texas Access to Justice Commission have revolved around motivating attorneys young and old to gift low-income Texans with a slice of their time and knowledge. This work is crucial, all the more so because the number of people that need legal help vastly exceeds the number who receive it.

But working for free 20 hours a year is not the only way for attorneys to make the world a better place..
What I’m talking about now is not working without payment, but working for less.

There’s no set formula for this, but reduced-fee programs at lawyer referral services are slowly gaining momentum – and attorney membership – by offering affordable, not free, legal help. The attorneys involved usually already have a full caseload, but sign on to help a limited number of clients at a reduced rate.
The potential to help a lot of folks in need for less is huge.

Austin’s Lawyer Referral Service gets about 25,000 calls a year and makes about 11,000 referrals. Many who call looking for an attorney literally gasp when they hear what the potential legal costs will be for a divorce, will or landlord-tenant dispute.

Some are middle-class, but don’t have the savings for the large retainer fee that’s often necessary collateral for lawyers trying to ensure they don’t have to withdraw from a case in the middle of litigation – a costly predicament for both attorney and client.

A common call is from a husband or wife who is trying to find the money for legal help after their spouse has filed for divorce. One of the spouses is often supporting children and without a job.

The Match Program in Austin was born in response.  It charges $20 for a 30-minute consultation with an attorney and caps the attorney’s billable rate at $75 an hour. Harris County does something similar with the Modest Means Program, which reduces participating lawyers’ rates by 25 percent.

Young attorneys who work with low-income clients gain valuable legal experience and greater name recognition in their community. When they join a reduced-fee program or offer a sliding pay scale in their private practice, they find themselves exposed to a wide variety of cases that can help them figure out what kind of law most interests them – and what kinds of cases aren’t worth their time.

There’s a market out there for attorneys who charge less than many of their peers, make a good income, and help those in need.

Ask your local bar association if there is a reduced-fee program in your area. If so, I urge you to sign up.  And if not, why not start one?  I’m happy to help!

Trish McAllister is the Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and has over 20 years of experience in the access to justice field.  Prior to joining the Commission, she served as the Executive Director of Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, a non-profit pro bono legal service provider.