By Ally Kennedy, Founder of Amiga
We all know that pro bono, low bono, and general volunteer opportunities are important. Some would say that they are essential and our duty as lawyers. However, in my work one-on-one with coaching solo practitioners and members of small firms and through my own personal experience, I have found that many of us are engaging in low bono and pro bono activities unintentionally because we are charging too little, doing free work without having a pro bono agreement from the beginning, and doing volunteer work until we are stretched too thin.
It is fair to say that most lawyers are overachievers and so that makes it difficult for us to say “no.” We tell ourselves that we “ should” be able to handle one more volunteer event. We reason with ourselves that our client “ deserves” to get the work done for free as a defense to our failure to charge the client (properly or at all). We cut our fees because we feel bad for the client or we think that they probably couldn’t afford the fee. We do not bill fully for our billable time.
It is time to take the reins on your pro bono, low bono, and volunteer work and be present and intentional about it. I am by no means discouraging doing pro bono work. I am, however, encouraging you to choose that work without letting it choose you.
Here are a few ways to empower your practice to earn what you deserve and choose the pro bono cases that you desire.
1. Determine The Number and Type of Pro Bono Cases You Will Take a Year
By setting a number and case type, it will help you be very purposeful when you are selecting a case. If you choose 3 for the year, you likely won’t take on 3 by the end of January. This will also help you set fees appropriately throughout the year because you know that your financial and time constraints will not be challenged and maxed by undercutting your prices on other cases throughout the year.
2. Create a Pro Bono and Low Bono Accountability System
Create an internal system for you to go through before offering a low bono price or pro bono service. For example, designate a person that you have to gain approval from each time you want to cut your fee to offer low bono or accept a case completely for free. This person should be someone who is a straight shooter and who can think neutrally about the situation. You can discuss your reasons for wanting to do the pro bono or low bono case, and then that person can give the final yes or no. (Sometimes that person can be a spouse).
Another idea is to create a checklist or some sort of criteria that you want to have in place to determine whether to charge less or not charge at all for a case. All cases would have to be run past that checklist and then maybe even have someone in the office do a final approval. If you cut your fees too easily/ often or fail to charge for your services, a system of accountability will change things for you dramatically.
3. Measure Your Volunteer Work To Make it Work for You
Volunteer work makes us feel good, but if it is any way related to building your business, your brand, and your name recognition, it needs to be tracked to see if it is bringing in new business. You can do this by asking on your intake sheet how someone found out about you and then tracking that through an excel spreadsheet in your office. Check in every 3 months, 6 months, and 1 year to see if that specific volunteer work is turning into results for your firm. I used to volunteer teaching a citizenship class at my local library. I helped people prepare for the citizenship test by teaching the material of the test. The classes were held weekly and I had to commute to a local suburb to teach, which took about 30 minutes. I love teaching, so at first I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. However, with time, it became more tedious and was taking away my time from my expanding practice, my personal activities that I enjoyed, and time with my family and friends. When I reached the year point, a friend of mine who was teaching the same class at a different library told me that she was not going to continue because it was not making any money for her or her firm. At first, I was stunned by this. I said, “ But don’t you care?! It will be hard to find another teacher, let alone an immigration attorney teacher at that!”
And she said, “ I have given it my all for a year. I have not received one client or one referral. I could be doing something that I enjoy and that leads to my professional development.”
The thought was completely new to me. I decided to give it a lot of thought and realized that I also had not had one case result from teaching the course. I actually never even gained one consultation from it. I decided that it was also for the best that I move on to the next opportunity.
4. Develop Additional Streams of Referral Sources
When we are first hanging out our shingles, volunteer work, pro bono, and low bono cases may be the main way that we get business. However, with time, it is important to develop other streams of referrals to your office so that you can balance your time with in-office work on cases that support your business with pro bono cases and out-of-office volunteer work.
Here are a few ideas:
- Connect with attorneys in other practice areas that can be your “go tos” for other case types, and be their “go to” as well.
- Join bar associations that are outside of your area of practice so you can network with other attorneys.
- Team up with other types of professionals who serve the same population you serve. For example, if you help people who have been injured in an auto accident, link up with chiropractors, massage therapists, and physical therapists in your area who have a dedicated practice of auto accident patients.
- When clients send you referrals, pick up the phone and thank them personally. Also, a small thank you gift, such as a $10 gift card to Starbucks, is a meaningful gesture.
Keep up the excellent work that you do! What other tips do you have for balancing pro bono work with your paid case load?
About your Ally in Life, Business and Law:
Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy is a national award-winning attorney and the founder of AMIGA Lawyers and Alexandra Kennedy Immigration Law.. After becoming a mother, and in a matter of 3 months, Ally transformed her practice from earning in pesos to earning 6-figures and she is passionate about teaching attorneys how they can do the same. Ally empowers lawyers to be the CEOs of their law firms with her weekly blog, webinars, and conferences where she teaches step-by-step how to do the work they love while running a profitable legal business. Ally lives outside of Seattle with her partner and their 5 children.