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“Low Bono” refers to providing legal representation for less than market value. The idea is that for certain clients who cannot afford an attorney, the attorney will reduce her price so that the client can hire her.
When lawyers represent asylum applicants (or anyone else) on a low bono basis, there is an obvious benefit to the applicant and to "the system," but what's in it for us? Why would an attorney do this? The most obvious reason is because the attorney wants to take the case—either to help the client or because it is an interesting or important matter. Another reason is that “market value” for an attorney’s time is simply too high for most potential clients. Both reasons apply to my decision about setting my fee for an asylum case: I am interested in asylum cases and that is the type of work I choose to do, and the market for asylum seekers won’t support high attorneys’ fees, at least not for most applicants.
For asylum cases in the DC-area, fees vary widely. I have heard about attorney’s fees as low as $900.00 for an affirmative case, and as high as $7,500.00 (and I even once heard about a case where the lawyer charged $80,000.00—dare to dream!). Most attorneys who primarily represent asylum seekers (such as myself) charge between $2,000.00 and $3,000.00 for a case. My fee for most cases is $2,800.00, which is a flat fee, meaning it includes photocopying and mailing, as well as attending the asylum interview. I have never calculated how this translates into an hourly fee (it would be too depressing), but I have no doubt that it is well below “market value,” whatever that means.
There is a great benefit to charging an affordable fee: You can get the types of clients and cases you want to do. And in this sense, I have been very lucky. I’ve represented journalists, human rights workers, women’s rights advocates, diplomats, and politicians, among many others. Given the good luck I’ve had with my clientele, I really shouldn’t complain, but since this is my blog, I will anyway. After all, wasn’t it Descartes who once said: “I complain, therefore I am.”
My main complaint is related to the backlog, and to delays with asylum cases in general. Before the backlog, most asylum cases would take maybe six or eight months from the time of hiring to the time of decision. Assuming a successful outcome, that was the end of the matter for me. Now, cases may take years. This means that the client contacts me for all sorts of things, from work permits to travel documents to requests to expedite to changes of address. All this extra work takes time; time for which I do not charge my clients.
But since we lawyers make a living by charging for our time, it’s only fair that we get paid for the additional work. As a practical matter, though, seeking fees for this work can be difficult. Clients are already stressed due to the backlog and charging for dribs and drabs of additional work seems a bit petty. Also, raising the fees for a case makes it more difficult for clients to hire lawyers, so charging for the additional time can create an access-to-justice issue: Higher fees = fewer represented asylum applicants.
But there is a cost to the attorney for not charging. Extra work for one case means less time for another. It also means more stress in general. Maybe there is some sort of balance that can be achieved here, but I have yet to find it.
Another problem of low bono is that with less money coming in, the attorney must spend less time on each case. This is not necessarily a problem that results in less successful outcomes for the clients (because although we spend less time on each case, we do a lot of asylum cases, so we become proficient at it). However, it does take some of the pleasure out of doing this type of work. Much of the attraction of an asylum case is the human interaction. But when there is less time for each case, there is less time to spend with the client. It’s common, for instance, for a client to offer to take me to lunch or dinner after a case is granted, but I almost never go—there simply isn’t time.
In the end, of course, I am my own boss, and I set my fees in a way that (theoretically) maximizes my own happiness with my practice. I want the interesting cases and the cool clients. That is what makes the job worthwhile. The extra work caused by the backlog has made this more difficult; it has upset the equilibrium. For now, I will keep on keeping on, but if the backlog persists, I don’t know whether the “low bono” model is sustainable. I hope that it is, but with each passing day in Backlogistan, I feel less optimistic.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.