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Lawer Gary Allen says, pro bono is a ‘salve that masks a larger problem’

As managing paperwork and business overhead weighs down the legal profession, people struggle to afford access to an attorney and justice, says Business Insider contributor Gary Allen.
As managing paperwork and business overhead weighs down the legal profession, people struggle to afford access to an attorney and justice, says Business Insider contributor Gary Allen. Getty Images/iStockphoto

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 these services, which is great. But is pro bono just a salve that masks a much larger problem?

First, it 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 money because they charge so much. But many practicing lawyers are drowning in overhead.

The legal profession is one of the last parts of our economy to modernize, often resulting in overhead that is 50 percent 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 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 percent 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 changed 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 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.

Gary Allen is a partner with Boise lawfirm Givens Pursley and the CEO of LeanLaw, which provides technology services for law firms.

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