When it comes to legal services, not everyone can afford an attorney.
And while there are pro-bono options out there that offer free legal services, there are certain criteria potential clients must meet in order to qualify. This leaves a sizable portion of the population in the middle who don’t have access to an attorney because they make too much money to qualify for legal aid but also can’t afford the services of a typical law firm.
To help bridge this gap, Abra Conitz has opened a law firm in Redmond that offers legal services on a sliding scale based on the federal poverty line and standards as well as her clients’ monthly income and the number of people they have living in their households.
The Redmond resident opened her low-bono firm — Conitz Law PLLC at 15600 Redmond Way, Suite 101 — in January with the assistance of her alma mater, Seattle University (SU) School of Law, through its Low Bono Incubator Program.
A TWO-PART GOAL
According to its website, the program is run by the Access to Justice Institute (ATJI) at SU and provides mentorship and other support to participating alumni and their new practices for a year. The program began in 2014 with a cohort of four attorneys and has had a new cohort of attorneys each year since. Conitz is part of the 2017 cohort, which has 11 attorneys.
While the Incubator Program is the only one of its kind in the state, Karena Rahall, assistant dean to ATJI, said there are about 60 similar programs nationwide.
She said incubator programs, like SU’s, provide financial and mentorship support to newly qualified attorneys who are dedicated to serving underserved, moderate-means clients while engaging in private practice.
She said the goal of their program is twofold: “to help address the widening access to justice gap for people of moderate means, and to provide crucial support to recent SU Law graduates who are dedicated to providing high quality legal services at reduced fees to clients with moderate financial resources.”
Rahall said according to a 2015 Civil Legal Needs study commissioned by the Washington State Supreme Court, more than 70 percent of the state’s low-income individuals annually encountered at least one significant civil legal problem — ranging from dealing with health care to housing to consumer debt.
“The driving purpose of low-bono incubators is to address the justice gap in our society: a growing number of people who need legal services cannot afford to hire an attorney but they make too much money to qualify for free legal aid,” Rahall said.
AN IMPORTANT NEED
Conitz, who graduated from SU in 2014, said one of the ways the SU Incubator Program helps participants get their law firms off the ground is offering creative ways for them to help their respective clients that won’t cost too much.
She joined the program after working in a law firm in downtown Seattle and found that they had a lot of clients coming in seeking legal aid but were turned away because they did not qualify for pro-bono services.
“I think (low bono is) a really important service to be offering,” Conitz said.
Since opening her practice, she said it has been great to be able to serve a population that has been overlooked for financial reasons and help get their cases resolved efficiently and meet them where they are financially.
In opening her law practice, Conitz said she wanted to be able to serve in the community she lives in, adding that it is important to have more affordable legal options throughout King County so they are more accessible to the community. In addition, Conitz said she is mobile, sometimes working from home or meeting clients where they are.
GETTING PEOPLE WHAT THEY NEED
Conitz practices family and education law, which she decided on after a working as an elementary teacher in Tacoma and Arizona for five years.
She taught in Title I schools, which serve a high percentage of low-income families and receive federal dollars. During her last few years, Conitz said she would see students who needed additional services but whose parents did not know how to advocate for them and ask for what they needed.
This led Conitz to education law as she wanted to be an effective advocate for these families. She said when she decided to leave teaching, she also considered social work but realized law was the path for her.
This is the first time Conitz has owned her own business so there have been some intricacies that come with that that she has had to learn. Despite these challenges, she has enjoyed her endeavor saying her favorite part has been the creative problem solving involved in her job as she figures out ways for her clients to get what they want without costing them more.