The third of Adam Levin’s questions that young criminal-defense lawyers might have:
“Do you perform volunteer, pro bono, or low bono work? Why or why not?”
While defending people in the criminal courts, even for pay, is for the public good (so that we don’t need as many karma offsets as others). As a criminal-defense lawyer helping people, you will be doing a tremendous amount of ad hoc pro bono work. It’s part of the nature of the business — people will call you needing legal advice short of formal representation. Beyond that, criminal-defense lawyers should do volunteer, pro bono, or low bono work, as the spirit moves them.
For more formal representation, I have found “low-bono” to be a better idea than pro-bono because people are much more satisfied with the representation they get when they are paying something for it. Almost everyone can afford to pay something; if you can give the client more satisfaction by charging her what she can afford (even if it’s an amount inconsequential to you), you’re doing her a disservice by representing her for free.
Unlike lawyers in most other fields, criminal-defense lawyers don’t have to go looking for low bono work; it comes to them. People will often call asking if you do pro bono work. Think of them as telephonic panhandlers. But, as I wrote here, the people who need our help so badly that we feel compelled to give it for free are never the ones who ask for it; they are the ones who want to pay, have some money to pay, but don’t have enough to hire someone competent.
Lots of people will call without the money to hire you. When you see a case in which someone is going to really get the shaft because she doesn’t have the money to hire competent counsel, consider taking the case (rather than leaving her to the mercies of the letter lawyers and V-6s) for whatever she can pay.