Monday, November 22, 2010

Pro Bono Attorneys: Necessary and Problematic

Practicing law can be rewarding.  It's fascinating to use the law as an instrument to help your client.  Sometimes a client walks into your office that has a "golden" case.  For example, a caring a doting mother that is seeking sole legal custody of her daughter because her ex-husband is a violent, druggie psycho.  That's a case I'd jump on any day.  There are a million and one tools that will enable you to achieve the desired result.  The only thing that throws a wrench in it, is that the husband walks into court with a pro-bono attorney.  The other attorney is green and eager to learn.  The husband has all the time in the world because he's unemployed, and none of the costs associated with protracted litigation, and will torture your client until she yields.  She can't keep up with the costs.  So, in the end, despite your advice and because of your mounting legal fees--she is forced to settle.

This scenario plays out every day.  It's not fair to your client, but there's little that you can do other than stop the clock.  Legal fees are such a huge factor in what a client does, and it has nothing to do with the law and justice or what's right.  It breaks my heart, but if your client can't afford to keep fighting the good fight--you must settle.

In divorce cases, you're actually forced to exchange retainer agreements.  I imagine that this came into practice so the Court can make sure that the parties are fighting on even ground.  Unfortunately, this has become a formality and means nothing.  However, you can bet the spouse that is paying $100/hour will go farther than the spouse that is paying $400/hour.  And it has nothing to do with the merits of the case.

In debt collection court, there is an army of volunteer attorneys.  These volunteer attorneys won't put in an appearance, but they advise the debtors of their "rights," thereby strong arming the creditor's attorney into settling for pennies on the dollar.  I don't have much sympathy for creditors, of course, but I can see where the costs of collection is transferred to other debtors.  Kind of like the costs of stolen merchandise forces a store to increase the prices on all the merchandise to account for the loss.  If you owe it, you owe it.  Unless you declare bankruptcy, why should you be allowed to settle for pennies on the dollar?

This is obviously one of my pet peeves about the practice of the law.  Much of the motivation to cease moving forward comes from the amount that must be paid to the attorney to do so.  I wish I knew how to even the playing field.  My feeling is that attorneys and politicians should be eating from cans and working because of their passion.  However, with the cost of becoming an attorney today--it's become hard to take on a case for a reasonable rate because you "believe" in it.  Attorneys have fallen into two camps--those that charge an exorbitant rate to survive and those who charge nearly nothing for the experience and the hope that they will one day be able to charge an exorbitant rate.  Should we all be doing this for less?  Or are attorneys' fees the leverage that all parties need to settle?

Any thoughts?


  1. If you charge too little, you make McDonalds wages; either that or you cut corners and half-ass a high volume of cases, get a reputation as a downmarket shyster, and the rest is history. Cases take time to do properly. That's the real motivation to settle, along with the fact that you can never, ever predict what's going to happen in court. Maybe the judge finds a coffee stain on page 3 of the complaint and dismisses it with prejudice. Who knows. Not only do attorney's fees mount, but years go by as well. As far as what we should all be doing, I think finding useful employment is the answer - just write off the 5 years of our lives and the 150K or whatever, and move on. And by the way I hate those bitchass legal aid bitches entering temporary appearances. I called one on his cell when I knew he was on vacation and said "hey, I can't talk directly to YOUR CLIENT, remember." Fuck that shit. And great post by the way :)

  2. With regards to debt collection, many debts being collected on in courts were purchased for pennies on the dollar themselves. And many of the original creditors charge insane interest rates (like 25%+) compared to what the cost to the company actually is. So when you see a debt of 1500 settle for 600, it's not necessarily a huge loss in real terms. In fact, if it's a secondary collector (like Portfolio or Encore), it's a windfall.

    I know costs to creditors are shared by all other consumers, but 9 times out of 10 it's the creditor's stupid decision to lend to non-credit-worthy parties that led them both to court, so I have little sympathy when they have to settle even with a loss.

  3. J-Dog is correct. A lot of the debt collectors are junk debt buyers paying less than 10 cents on the dollar. You would be surprised how many of the cases are outside the statute of limitations. But as we all know, a default is a default.

    Handling the debt defense cases pro bono can also lead to a lucrative FDCPA practice.

  4. Too many Pro bono "attorneys" debase our profession. If you give something away for free, why would anyone pay for it? Think Napster. The public begins to fall into two camps: (1) all lawyers are "rich," so why don't they do my case for free (i.e. ask for a favor), or(2) of course I should be represented for free because I know someone who got a pro bono attorney. Both types of clients will be just as much work, and just as grateful, as a paying client. Legal services are drawing near to free education and healthcare.

  5. J-Dog is on the money. These pigs make bad loans and then want to bitch and moan when the debtor cannot pay up. A friend, who has since passed away, once declared bankruptcy. Guess how long it took him to get new offers of credit? Less than a month. The guy opened up 2 new lines of credit (cc) within a few months of declaring bankruptcy.

    We see that the laws of this nation are written and enforced decidedly in favor of the creditors, landlords, the wealthy, landowners, business owners, corporate class, et al. The mortgage companies, i.e. commodities traders, approved $250K home loans to a guy making $30K annually. And then they whined to the government - the entity these pigs often refer to as the "evil, over-sized gubmint" - and received a little bailout.

    The law is a weapon. It is usually pointed at the plebeians. The bagman for Industry, i.e. those politicians in black robes, make sure that the system is not disturbed. (Sure, the average man or woman wins occasionally. Then again, the slots pay out from time to time as well. Even a gold-digger will sometimes climb on top of her 80 year old husband. You have to keep up people's faith and confidence, in the system.)

  6. I made a probono will for a retired teacher who has a $350,000 home, 150K in savings, life insurance for 250K and a plot of land. SHe told me she needs a free attorney because "I got no money". the truth is a lot of these legal aid staff assign pro bono attorneys to clients who already have money coz they need a steady supply of clients to justify their salary as legal aid employee. THis pro bono thing is not highly overrated, it is used by certain sections of the community to get free services. Just imagine, if the legal aid people and had done the right thing and sent this teacher away, some starving wills attorney could've gotten a paying client. ABA needs to launch a public service campaign to let people know all the good that attorneys do; but its only answer to improve attorney image is 'do more pro bono work'- their advice is hitting a lot of struggling attorneys in the stomach, its another insult from the ABA to the already struggling solos and small firm attorneys.



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