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The Solo Side: Laying the Foundation for a Solo Firm on Pro Bono and Low Bono Practice

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By Cresston Gackle

My greatest fear in starting a law firm was thinking, “Who in the world will trust me enough to pay me to help them with the most difficult thing going on in their lives?” In law school, we’re taught a great deal about thorough research, writing, analysis, and ultimately to eliminate uncertainty for ourselves and our clients. But in the entrepreneurship of solo practice, I’ve often had to accept a great deal of uncertainty about how my next client and I will get connected, and how much I will earn.

Perhaps it may seem at once intuitive and counter-intuitive, but pro bono and low-bono legal work has been an integral part of building my solo practice from the beginning. There is an immense amount of legal work out there that people are trying to do on their own. They’re facing difficult family and financial situations and, on top of trying to manage their lives and care for those around them, they are attempting to identify, understand and complete court forms and follow seemingly endless instructions on service, filing, and motions. Particularly in the areas of family law and juvenile law, we know there is a need for legal advice and assistance. The issue from a solo practitioner’s perspective, though, is sustainability. Can you really build a practice on doing work for free or at significantly reduced cost?

I’ve found the answer to that question to be a resounding “yes.” 

First, from my perspective as a newer lawyer, it was key to my development as a lawyer to start doing legal work and getting into court as quickly as possible. Picking up cases and legal work from Volunteer Lawyers Network, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, and Children’s Law Center, as well as referrals from attorneys I had networked with, meant I could ramp up to a modest caseload quickly. There are two elements at work here. First, this helped me learn about many of the practical aspects of how different courts, both administrations and judicial chambers, manage cases and filings, schedule hearings, and handle legal arguments. Second, it helped me prove to myself and to others that I could do good legal work. Half the battle in my mind was gaining the credibility among other lawyers and among clients so that they would want to return to me if they needed help or had a referral in the future.

When I started out, most of my matters were contract research and writing assignments for other lawyers and low-bono and pro bono cases. Everyone that engaged me for help was taking a chance on me and it was essential for me to follow through for them. Anyone that knows me would not mistake me for an exceptional networker. But in doing these tasks, in helping these lawyers and clients in need, I was building a network of referral sources to sustain my firm.


"One of my primary referral sources has been the Minnesota Lawyer Referral and Information Service run (MNLRIS) by the Hennepin and Ramsey County Bar Associations."


One of my primary referral sources has been the Minnesota Lawyer Referral and Information Service run (MNLRIS) by the Hennepin and Ramsey County Bar Associations. Through their Reduced Fee Program, which places limits on the initial retainer fee ($750) and hourly rate ($90), MNLRIS helps fill the gap between pro bono legal services and the general legal market. Referrals from this program have been critical to helping build my practice. (Editors note: Find out more about MNLRIS opportunities for attorneys at https://www.mnlawyerreferral.org/attorneys).

And these pro bono and low-bono cases are important. There is very little that has made me more certain that the practice of law is important than the practical and life-changing impact these cases have on clients. Without legal help, it’s doubtful whether they would have made it to court to have their legal problems addressed or that their stories would have been told. These cases give you an understanding of how the law impacts people on a daily basis and, as a solo attorney, you are one of their closest advisors. It has reminded me that the practice of law is not just an intellectual exercise, it is actually useful and consequential for people in need.

Yes, in solo practice, you cannot live on work alone. At some point, you have to get paid. Doing pro bono and low-bono work does mean you are at times being severely underpaid for extremely difficult legal work. It is an investment in yourself and in the people you help that referrals for paid work will come from the connections you make in these cases.


"Pro bono and low-bono legal work has been an integral part of building my solo practice from the beginning." 


And let’s be practical for a moment, it’s also about revisiting some exceptional expectations we have about our profession and what success looks like. Earning $90 per hour on a case may seem incredibly low, but it’s more than 10 times the minimum wage in Minnesota and three times what many other professions would consider a very good wage. Thinking about the hours demanded of associates at larger firms these days, some quick math reveals that just 1,000 billable hours per year, or an average of about 20 per week, is enough to gross $90,000 in earnings from low bono work through the MNLRIS Reduced Fee Program. This point, while oversimplifying matters, is important to recognizing that we as lawyers occupy a highly privileged and powerful position in the community. While pro bono and low-bono work may not at first appear to be the best use of time for a new solo law firm, it has in fact been the critical investment I’ve made in the development of my abilities as a lawyer and in laying the foundation of my firm’s future. 



Cresston-Gackle-150Cresston Gackle is a solo practitioner of juvenile and family law and a part-time public defender of children in child protection and delinquency matters. Before entering solo practice, he was a law clerk in the Fourth Judicial District. Originally from Iowa, Mr. Gackle pursued his education at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate and then as a law student. Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Gackle was an avid fair and festival goer and he now spends most of his leisure time learning and playing modern board games online.

 


 

"Pro bono and low-bono legal work has been an integral part of building my solo practice from the beginning."

 



 

 


 

"Pro bono and low-bono legal work has been an integral part of building my solo practice from the beginning."

 



 

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