Suffolk University Law School Professor Gabriel Teninbaum and the school’s Legal Innovation and Technology (LIT) Institute are corecipients of a $10,000 grant from Wolters Kluwer for a project focused on helping low- and moderate-income people get legal assistance. The grant is known as the Leading Edge Prize for Educational Innovation.
Teninbaum and the LIT Institute will work with the dean of Concord School of Law and two related start-up companies—Proboknow and Lowboknow. The companies use the Internet and apps to connect low- and moderate-income people with lawyers or supervised law students who are willing to provide no-cost (pro bono) or low-cost (low-bono) legal services.
Proboknow, a nonprofit serving low-income clients, is financially supported by Lowboknow, a for-profit start-up that connects those who earn too much to qualify for free legal help, and yet not enough to afford market rates, with solo practitioners and small law firms willing to reduce their standard rates.
It makes sense that hungry solo practitioners might lower their fees to get more clients in the door. But there’s another avenue for fee reduction: limited assistance representation (LAR)—sometimes called unbundling. Through LAR, a firm or solo practice carves up elements of legal representation into discreet tasks, allowing the client to pay only for those individual tasks. Depending on the nature of the attorney’s involvement, he or she may not appear in court. This stripped-down approach, if it’s done properly, is sanctioned by the court system and the bar.
The clinical students in Suffolk Law’s Accelerator Program already work with the low-bono model, Teninbaum said. "They use technological and process improvements to decrease costs per client, which allows moderate-income people a chance to receive and pay for legal help. That’s the idea behind Lowboknow, so we saw some obvious synergies."
Teninbaum and the LIT Institute will work with the Proboknow and Lowboknow teams to get more law school clinics in the region to use this tech-savvy model, with limited assistance representation also on the table.
He sees a big upside to a tech-driven low-bono model. "There’s pent-up demand for legal services that people thought they couldn’t afford," he said. "Done properly, law students and legal professionals can learn to harness new processes and tools to help people with this need. It’s an important part of the future of the profession, because there’s so much money that’s being left on the table presently."