Sheldon Krantz (left) and William Treanor (handout)

In a novel effort to address the civil legal needs of lower-income people, Georgetown University Law Center is working with two major law firms to create a small nonprofit law firm in Washington, D.C.

The unprecedented collaboration, announced Monday, is aimed at providing legal services at affordable rates to people with modest incomes who don’t qualify for free legal aid because they’re not poor enough.

The DC Affordable Law Firm is slated to start taking clients in the fall, and will be staffed by six salaried lawyers from this year’s graduating class of Georgetown students. The law firms—DLA Piper and Arent Fox—will provide a range of services and support.

Retired DLA Piper partner Sheldon Krantz will work for free as the firm’s full-time executive director, and roughly a dozen DLA Piper partners and associates will be involved in training and mentoring the new lawyers. The so-called low bono firm will operate out of nearly 1,200 square feet of space on K Streeet donated by Arent Fox, which will also be providing administrative support, as well as help with training.

“There is a massive population of people who do not qualify for legal aid and can’t afford the rates that lawyers normally charge,” says Krantz, who estimates that 100,000 people in the D.C. area would qualify for this firm’s services. “Georgetown, Arent Fox and DLA Piper want to create a nonprofit firm to serve this largely unrepresented population that can be replicated nationally.”

The new firm will take clients whose incomes are 200-400 percent of the federal poverty level. Individuals would qualify if they made between $23,540 and $47,080; a family of four could be served if its income was between $48,500 and $97,000. (Individuals with lower incomes qualify for free legal aid.)

A fee structure for the low bono firm is still in the works. Benjamin Boyd, the co-managing partner of DLA Piper’s D.C. office, says they’re trying to avoid using billable hours as much as possible.

“We’ll work as hard as we can to set fair and reasonable flat fees for most of what we do,” he says.

If hourly rates are appropriate, they might be in the range of $50-$75 an hour—a sizable discount over the average billable rates in the District of Columbia for small firms with fewer than five lawyers, which according to a 2011 survey of attorney fees, stood at $287 an hour. For firms larger than that, the hourly rate was $478.

Millions of Americans who need critical legal services can’t afford them, and have to go unrepresented in legal proceedings for such vital matters as evictions, child custody disputes and veterans benefits problems. A 2008 report by the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission, for example, found that well over 95 percent of tenants in housing court appear without counsel.

“I think this is responsive to one of the great crises in the access-to-justice areas,” says Georgetown Dean William Treanor of the low bono project. “I think what we’re doing is a real model that can be replicated by others.”

Treanor adds that the law firm support is “absolutely crucial” to the project. “The law firms are necessary to make this go. We are very grateful to them.”

Georgetown is providing the money to pay the lawyers, who will go through a three-month training process before handling matters for clients. The lawyers receive a salary and benefits worth $30,200 for a 15-month period, and will also receive an LL.M. degree in the process. The money is coming from an existing fund for fellowships for graduates who work at public interest firms and government jobs. The founders are hoping the firm will be self-sufficient in three years.

The impetus for the firm started with Georgetown professor Peter Edelman, who is the faculty director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. He started thinking about this concept two-and-a-half years ago at the suggestion of Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. Edelman says he talked to roughly a half-dozen local law firms about getting involved, but only Marc Fleischaker, the chairman emeritus at Arent Fox, stepped up immediately to offer his firm’s help. DLA Piper joined later, led by Krantz, who is an adjunct professor at Georgetown. “To see the enthusiasm and responsiveness of these two firms, which have terrific track records on pro bono, has been great,” says Edleman.

Arent Fox’s Fleischaker says big-firm lawyers have a special obligation to help close this civil justice gap. “We have made great livings and careers on the basis of support for the rule of law,” he says. “The right thing to do is make sure others have access to a lawyer when necessary.”

Fleischaker says the two firms are prepared to deal with conflicts that may arise if clients of the DC Affordable Law Firm have disputes with banks or other clients of the two bigger firms. Because the low bono firm will be a separate entity, it won’t create a conflict for it to represent the individual, he says. But DLA Piper or Arent Fox may decline to mentor on some assignments if there might be a conflict. “There may be an occasional case where it’s uncomfortable,” Fleischaker says, but he doesn’t expect this problem to arise often.

In recent years, there have been other attempts to create new models to serve the legal needs of low- to moderate-income people. A growing number of law schools have been involved with “incubator” projects, in which they provide some support to recent graduates who are starting practices aimed at this population. In February, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a two-year, $400,000 grant to the Chicago Bar Foundation to support its Justice Entrepreneurs Project, which is an incubator for recent law school graduates to start socially conscious law practices in the Chicago area that offer affordable legal services. Partners from Jenner & Block, Drinker Biddle & Reath and other firms are involved on the JEP’s board. The Chicago Bar Foundation, which is the charitable arm of The Chicago Bar Association, has donated $250,000 in seed funding and staffing.

Professor Jane Aiken, the director of The Community Justice Project at Georgetown and the law school’s liaison with the low bono project, says she’d like to see this model replicated by other schools and law firms. Aiken stresses that having a lawyer can make a vital difference to people who face serious civil legal problems . “There’s a lot of evidence that if you put a lawyer in the mix, you change the outcome,” she says. “Lawyers can make a difference and should make a difference.”