Yes, I went to law school. All three years. I graduated with honors and took the bar exam and passed. Why did I go to law school? I wanted to help people. I like the law. I believe that I can make a difference in people’s lives.
However, my biggest pet peeve when meeting with new clients is when they ask me to take their case for free. Sometimes, they don’t even ask. Sometimes, they just expect that my private law firm should somehow cut them a break and just do free legal work because . . . Well, you fill in the blank.
Many times, prospective clients who ask us to work for free know, from the very beginning, that they cant afford an attorney. However, they will schedule an appointment with my office and pitch their excuse for why they cant pay. They are on disability. They just lost their job. They have children to feed and really cant afford the legal costs associated with their prospective case. You name, they have an excuse for it. They hope we will buy off on it and take their case. WE WONT.
Don’t get me wrong. My office does plenty of pro bono work. In fact, I was honored by the Clark County Bar Association for my pro bono service last year. However, the cases that we take for free come from one of the many law related organizations that are designed to assist those that cant afford lawyers.
When you make an appointment with a private law firm, it is not the same as calling Legal Aid. Private lawyers are in business and need to charge for their time. That is just the reality. Very few will take clients that cant afford the fees associated with a case and most will be offended that a prospective client will even ask for pro bono work right at the start.
It is when a client asks me to take their case for no money that I often find myself trying to justify why I wont. While we really don’t owe these prospective clients an explanation, they should understand the reality.
I have student loans associated with my law degree and taking the bar exam. I have to pay them back. If I don’t charge for my services, I cant pay the government and they will take everything I own and probably put me in jail.
I have a family to support. If I don’t charge for my services, my kids don’t eat. I cant put a roof over their head or gas in my car to get them to and from wherever it is they need to go. I cant afford to pay their medical insurance or the costs associated with their schooling. And so on.
I have a full time staff of five other people who count on me. If we don’t charge our clients, my employees cant pay their bills or take care of their families.
We only have so many hours in a day and we have clients that can afford our fees. When we take a case pro bono, we are making a commitment to the client that we will contribute the same hard work and time that we do to a paying client. When someone comes in and just expects pro bono services, they are taking away our time and effort from our other clients.
The practice of law for me is not a hobby. I purposefully did not join a Legal Aid Clinic or become a public defender. The folks that practice for those entities are excellent lawyers and their purpose is to provide free legal work. I am not one of them on purpose.
I went in to private practice because I do love the law and I do believe I can, and I have, made a difference in fighting for my clients. That being said, I am good at what I do and I should be compensated for doing it.
I’m not writing this article to criticize the people who are in need of pro bono legal work. Lawyers can be expensive. However, there are LOTS of resources available for those who truly cant afford an attorney. Legal Aid, the public defenders office, Ask A Lawyer are just a few organizations that offer free legal advice, and even legal representation to those who truly have no money for a lawyer. The rest of us, those that are in private practice, expect to be compensated for our time.
Before you call a private attorney and schedule an appointment, ask yourself if you can really afford a lawyer. If you don’t know, ask the lawyer you want to meet with what their fees for your case might be. If you cant afford it, ask if the lawyer will work with you on a payment plan so that you can fit the lawyer’s fees into your budget. If you still cant afford it, call Legal Aid or seek out other resources for legal advice.