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So often we’re told the key to most anything is finding the proper balance. For many attorneys, improving their job satisfaction may be about striking a balance between their “bread and butter” work and pro bono or “low bono” (discounted fee) representation. The Law School Consortium Project (LSCP) is a network of 17 law schools in eight states that pools resources to help solo and small firm attorneys who are interested in serving low- and middle-income communities find an economically viable way to do so. Important elements of the program are law office management guidance and use of a support network, resources that enable participants to accept cases that they might otherwise decline. To learn more, Small Firm Business editor-in-chief Trevor Delaney spoke with the program’s director, Lovely Dhillon; two attorneys who are involved with their local LSCP programs, Roberta Chambers and Deborah Eisenberg; and Dean Rivkin, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law and director of its LSCP program. TREVOR DELANEY: How did you get involved with your local program? ROBERTA CHAMBERS: After law school I chose to go into private practice and so I became involved with the Community Legal Resource Network (CLRN) at the City University of New York, and I was basically invited to enjoy the benefits that the network provides to new practitioners. DEBORAH EISENBERG: Before joining my firm about two years ago, I had been at a non-profit legal organization doing nothing but public interest work. When I joined the firm, I began to look for various organizations to assist with building my practice — which is primarily employment on the employee side. I was familiar with the project here at the University of Maryland called Civil Justice Inc. (CJI), and so I reached out to CJI as they were also looking for some small firm representatives and folks who were doing employment law. DELANEY: Is serving as a mentor part of your involvement? EISENBERG: I’m a member of the program. I can’t really say that I’m a mentor to anyone else — I think that the members sort of mentor one another. CHAMBERS: The network really allows you the opportunity to be both a leader and a follower at the same time, because you can mentor sometimes and sometimes you’re a mentee, depending upon what your needs are. DELANEY: Professor Rivkin, you direct the CAN-LEARN program at the University of Tennessee. How and why was it started? DEAN RIVKIN: Through our practice in the legal clinic and from other lawyers, I saw a real need for representation in education related cases, with special education cases being at the core. And that need was barely being met by a handful of small firm and solo practitioners in the region. We felt that this was a great chance for the law school to help build a broader delivery system and to support lawyers who are doing this kind of needed work in a variety of ways. We started our project in September 2003 with a full-time staffer. DELANEY: Is there a fee for for lawyers to be a part of this support network? LOVELY DHILLON: Some of our law schools provide this free or for a minimal fee as part of their commitment to graduates who pursue this work. A couple of our projects have membership fees for the practitioners but it’s on a sliding scale, and I think it’s not even more than $250 after several years of practice. EISENBERG: For CJI in Maryland I think my annual dues are $200. DELANEY: As a solo practitioner, how do you balance your interest in pursuing public interest work with a practical need to pay the bills? CHAMBERS: I am also a nurse, so when I started my practice, I was able to continue working as a nurse for a while. This enabled me to rent my office space and have some additional income for the day-to-day operational expenses. Of course, I have to deal with the infrastructure — not just the equipment and furniture but also office management, software and other needs, and CLRN was very helpful. Through CLRN a technician came to my office to help install software, and some of the software had been obtained through negotiations done by CLRN. DELANEY: Generally, how should lawyers manage the low bono vs. pro bono issue, i.e., how can they keep from underwriting all of their public-interest work? RIVKIN: It’s a real key issue. The large core of our network is composed of small firm and solo practitioners to whom we are making very plain that we want this project to be looked on as a way to help support their practices and to make money doing it. Yet at the same time we recognize that we’re going to continue to confront calls from potential clients who need representation but can’t afford a private lawyer. It’s a very complex practice as we are getting deeper and deeper into it. Even a low income person who can’t afford a solo or small firm practitioner might have a very strong case, where there are statutory fees awarded to prevailing parties. And we are developing a screening mechanism using lawyers in our network to try to identify cases that are very strong, that might attract members of our network who would do the case on a low bono basis. CHAMBERS:: There are a number of ways to handle low bono arrangements. Outside of fixing a fee that will be lower than the client could find elsewhere, I’ll sometimes offer the client a fee schedule so that the client will have several weeks or months over which to pay. I sometimes also will make an arrangement where the client may pay court fees and I will offer them a preset number of hours of work — so long as they pay for the fees I’ll volunteer the time to make their case. I will use any combination of those arrangements to help clients. DHILLON: We just completed a survey of the practitioners in our network. Our stats show us that on average 42 percent of their cases are handled on a low bono or discounted fee basis, 37 percent are full fee and about 6 percent are fee shifting kind of cases, and then the remainder is pro bono work. DELANEY: What are the advantages of the consortium versus other law school programs that may have a similar mission? DHILLON: Trying to get law schools to incorporate law office management in their curriculum is a very key part of LSCP’s mission, because so many graduates go into solo and small firm practice ill-prepared. So a big portion of the network programming is law office management — looking at billing practices, at marketing practices, at technology. RIVKIN: One of the things that we plan to do is have our students attend some of the consortium seminars, and we’re going to get CLE credits for lawyers to attend these with nominal fees. We’re going to have some programs on law office management there. We’re also going to bring in lawyers to the classroom. We’ll invite lawyers who have particular expertise, and have them teach a class on due process hearings, for example. We plan to integrate the lawyers in the network into the course and the students in the course into the network — and certainly how to set up a law practice is going to be one key component. EISINBERG: I went to Yale Law School where they don’t really prepare you for practice at all, much less solo or small firm practice; they assume everybody is either going to teach or work for a large law firm. So this organization is very helpful in terms of the nitty-gritty of how you do marketing, how you bill your clients, how you select cases so that you have a successful practice. CJI has really grown over the last two years and has had some pretty exciting brown bag luncheons from which I’ve learned a lot. Even being at a small firm rather than being a solo practitioner, it’s all still very applicable. And CJI is looking for opportunities to do more systemic high impact litigation where both CJI attorneys and some of the members could co-counsel together so that the solo or the small firm practitioner isn’t carrying 100 percent of the risk of the litigation. CJI has already done some predatory lending and mortgage discrimination cases using those kinds of partnerships. And they are also developing in the future a litigation loan assistance fund so that if there is a high impact public interest case, which could get very expensive, there is some help. CHAMBERS: One additional feature that I find extremely useful is the online mentoring. The way that translates into help to my clients is that if a client walks in and this area might be new to me, or I have a burning desire to assist this client but it’s going to cost me too much to do the research, right off the bat I can get online and get a jump start from consortium members — direction towards other areas of law that I should explore or sources for additional insight. EISENBERG: I agree with all that. It’s a way to sort of have a virtual law firm through the list serve and have a network of folks to call in different subject areas and even within your own area. A CJI deputy director put together some statistics for me. Members report an average savings in their practice due to membership of about $1,500 per year. By pooling resources they can get special rates for their member attorneys on products and services such as Westlaw. CHAMBERS: I don’t think that attorneys make a decision to open a practice to do low bono work. I think they are driven by an awareness of the inequity that the underprivileged experience in their lack of access to the justice system. Then when such a client walks in, the question is, how do I serve this client who can’t pay? And that question is answered: I have a network, a consortium, that will help me provide the support in all the ways we have mentioned before, and by being able to lean on this network it makes that service to such clients easier. And I’m sure a lot of people are willing and are not able to help underprivileged clients because they don’t have the support. For LSCP program descriptions, see www.lawschoolconsortium.net.

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