Most kids who go to law school don't want to admit to the profit motive. Yes, they want to help people, and to make the world a better place, but they also want to carve out a lucrative career that allows them to buy a house in the suburbs and raise a family. (Of course, there are some people who go into the law strictly to make money, but they rarely admit this.)
In the real world, though, part of being an effective lawyer is making money. Condemning yourself for taking advantage of your clients—when, in fact, your fees are actually quite reasonable—is not a recipe for future law firm success.
In Law, As in Other Professions, Money Is a Key Motivation
Let's say you're one of those people who went into the law so you can help people. You're not a fancy corporate lawyer lobbying Congress for oil-drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico. You're a sole practitioner, or a partner in a small-town firm, that represents people of modest means in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. Like everyone else in the world, you have to pay your rent, feed your family, and put gas in the car, and if you're early on in your career you're probably also paying off your law-school debt.
Is it appropriate, in these circumstances, to charge your clients $200 or $300 per hour, or to take 25 percent of their hard-won damages? Of course it is! Because if you don't, you will:
- Be too worried about meeting your basic needs (rent, food, healthy insurance, etc.) to pay much attention to your clients.
- Not be able to maintain the resources you need to actively litigate cases (paralegals, database access, subscriptions to law journals).
- Lack the resources to advertise and market your legal practice, which would bring in more paying clients and thus more money
Of course, there's nothing wrong with doing occasional pro bono work, if a client is especially needy or deserving or if you feel that public attention to the case will help your practice in the long run. But keep in mind that lawyers who specialize in pro bono work usually have another source of income—a hefty inheritance, say, or a spouse who pulls in big bucks at a non-legal job—and can afford to put in weeks or months of unpaid work and make themselves look like saints.
Great Legal Marketing Says: Don't Be Afraid to Make Money
America's entire economic system is built on the profit motive and a healthy degree of self-interest. By charging below-market fees and taking on excessive pro bono work, you may be helping a handful of clients in the long run, but you're cheating the larger number of potential clients whom you could help if you had adequate financial resources.