Community Lawyering: Using Lowbono as a Resource for Clients and Practitioners

The idea of lowbono, or legal services offered at a significantly discounted rate to low, middle income or underrepresented communities, is often discussed within the pro bono community. Luz Herrera, Co-Founder and Board President of Community Lawyers, Inc. (CLI), has created a workable model that benefits both the clients being served and the practitioners providing the service.

When CLI opened its doors in 2005 the goal was to provide college students interested in pursuing public interest law careers a first hand look at what it was like to be a community lawyer. Three years later the focus shifted to its current form. Today the program, which has just one part-time staff person, works mostly with solo practitioners in Southeast LA County and Northern Orange County. These practitioners are either recent graduates just starting as solo practitioners or were previously working at other organizations and are now trying to establish a practice on their own. CLI attempts to serve both the clients who need legal services and the local lawyers working to establish themselves in their local community.

The program, which works very organically due to limited funding, provides a network for the new solo attorneys as well as a resource to community members who may not otherwise qualify for conventional forms of legal aid. CLI holds clinics during the evening hours and on weekends when services are more readily available to clients who can not attend daytime court clinics or self help hours. The volunteer attorneys answer simple legal questions, assist legal services consumers with forms and refer them to legal services organizations if appropriate. In addition to providing these brief services, lawyers also gain mentorship opportunities and potential clients.

This model is a bit more unique from the typical clinical model. Many of the community members seeking assistance exceed legal services income requirements or have issues outside of a particular organizations priorities. Despite the fact that they are unable to afford market rate legal representation they are still able to find help through CLI’s program. In some instances legal services consumers ask volunteer attorneys to provide legal services that extend beyond the scope of what is provided during CLI clinics.  In those situations, CLI encourages volunteer attorneys to provide additional services at reduced rates based upon what the client can afford. In this way, CLI is a resource to both the client and  the newly established lawyer who wants to assist individuals in their community. CLI provides a forum for a  symbiotic relationship that accounts for a full spectrum of legal services from advice at no cost to representation for a fee that is agreeable to all parties involved.  Through this model, CLI accomplishes its objective: creating a pipeline for quality, ethical and affordable attorneys who are responsive to the needs of the communities they serve.

True to its roots, CLI also offers a formal summer program for law students to help them understand the world of public interest and community lawyering. Students are placed with a legal services program and a private attorney who provide the student an opportunity to understand the full range of legal services available. This program helps the students fully grasp how they will address access to justice issues in their own practice and further strengthens CLI’s mission of preparing lawyers to serve the community.

Like many programs across the country CLI faces significant limitations due to a lack of funding. The program functions without any formal grant and relies instead on the nominal donations of clients and more significant contributions from individual donors and fundraisers. Despite having to make tough decisions about the focus of the organization given their limited resources, CLI continues to serve community members on both the practitioner and client side. This lowbono model is just one more way access to justice is a reality for many members of the poverty population who might otherwise have no help.

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