When I started karmacounsel.org in 2011, I had a vision for a world in which lawyers represented clients without regard to payment of fees. The way I saw it, the attorney-client relationship could not exist properly when the client and attorneys held divergent interests. The dynamic of lawyer vs. client on legal fees is familiar to anyone who has ever hired a lawyer. Your lawyer is there to represent your best interest, and to advocate for your cause, but s/he also seems opposed to you in several ways: (1) they make you sign an onerous fee agreement that threatens everything from the accrual of interest on unpaid balances to being sued for non-payment and collections, (2) they charge you for every minute they work on your case, (3) you receive bills that are mind boggling, and (4) your attorney tells you that must pay these bills or your attorney will withdraw from your case and leave you hanging. All of these elements have become common to the modern attorney-client relationship, yet to me they have always seemed absurd.

Viewing these same elements from the lawyer’s perspective is equally disturbing. At the very time a lawyer is supposed to be advocating for their client, they are also keenly aware of their adversity in the fee arrangement. This awareness drives every decision a lawyer makes from how long to spend on a case to how to speak to the client and pursue the case. For the clients with the most to spend, they typically get the most attention. Period. Yet the attorney will struggle with the stress of knowing that they are unable to devote required time to a case because of a client’s inability to pay.

Solving the Problem of Adverse Attorney-Client Relationships

 

At first, I felt that eliminating the fee agreement was the solution, so I simply started telling clients that I suggested a donation of X, Y, or Z for the representation. In these cases, I deliberately refrained from entering into a contractually binding fee agreement with my clients so that I would have no legal recourse against them if they did not pay my suggested donation. It was fascinating at first feeling the dynamic of the relationship shift with this one modification. In all senses, we became aligned. I was both my client’s advocate in court and at the same time also their advocate for simply donating what they could afford. And truthfully, I had no desire for money so anything I received seemed like such a gift. Most clients donated what I suggested and the results were clear: the relationship tensions created by the typical attorney fee agreement were eliminated, and I was set free to simply work the case. I also noticed that these donation-based cases went through the system smoother and with much greater cooperation and enthusiasm from the clients. The seed was planted for a new type of law firm.

From this initial strategy of taking only donation-based cases, I soon added sliding scale fees as an option for corporate and business clients. Again, no binding fee agreement was entered. My philosophy is that if a client does not pay a bill, it is their karma, not mine, and I am not going to worry about it. What’s interesting is that out of the hundreds of clients I have had over the years, I can recall around five who did not pay for my services. Of these five or so clients, I continue to receive calls and emails from them to help with other issues. That is, their actions continue to lead them into difficulty in life, with newer and newer problems. I don’t know if this phenomenon is a result of their not paying their attorney who helped them, or simply reflective of the way they deal with the World. Whatever the cause, it’s of little concern because 99% of clients do pay something towards the work I do for them.

Pro Bono Means Giving Back to the World, Not Simply Representing a Few Indigent Clients

 

Most for-profit law firms do a limited amount of pro bono legal work for indigent clients. On average, this comes to around 50 hours per year for most lawyers who do this type of work (some do more and most do a lot less). But when they are not doing their 50 hours per year of pro bono, these lawyers are billing another 1,800 – 2,500 hours at their normal rates ($300-$800 per hour), which can bring in substantial revenues for each attorney (do the math). So, when you look at the pro bono done by most firms, and consider the time/money committed to such endeavors, it’s pretty obviously a minuscule portion of the work they do. The remaining large sums of money are deposited into the firm accounts, used for overhead, and paid out to attorneys and employees. Where it goes from there, no one knows but a lot ends up in huge houses, boats, luxury club memberships, vacations, expensive luxury items such as watches, jewelry, and cars. I personally love nice things, but I love my fellow citizens of this planet more. If I have the good fortune to live in the U.S., with all my needs and wants taken care of, I would rather give money back so that others may rise up out of poverty. A nice watch or fancy car would not help society in any way.

This brings me to the title of this piece, which is “Redefining Pro Bono Legal Work.” Karmacounsel.org is a different type of law practice. All of our cases are pro bono because all of our profits are donated to charitable causes. No one at karmacounsel.org is getting financially wealthy off of the legal fees we collect. Instead, we profit with spiritual wealth and by reinvesting back into our World. We believe that our World is better when we all chip in and we have no desire to own fancy cars or big houses. We prefer the simple life, few possessions, and freedom of knowing that we are giving more to the World than we are taking. We are not consumers of products, but producers of public service and new ideas. This is how we do pro bono. We represent all people, even those with lots of money. Why should pro bono be limited to helping out the indigent with legal representation, when we can do paying legal work for socially responsible companies and individuals and help out the poor through monetary donations? Just because we do law, doesn’t mean that’s the only thing we know how to give. And because we do not simply donate 50 hours a year to pro bono, we feel pretty good at the end of the day when we see all the good we have done with our work and donations.

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