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Question 190: Should lawyers limit their earnings to a certain level?

As an idealistic college student, I was attracted to the legal profession because I felt it would provide an opportunity to obtain justice for vulnerable people. I went to one of the better law schools, graduated near the top of my class, did well on the bar exam, and went to work about eight years ago for a large firm in a major city. The job paid well and I received the maximum raises, so that I paid off my student loans and saved some money. However, I had to put in long hours and worked exclusively on contracts. I found this tiring and not enjoyable. Moreover, almost all the firm’s clients were businesses or wealthy individuals, so that my work hardly was what I had imagined with youthful idealism when I decided to go into law.

Three years ago I married a classmate from law school, and we bought a house in a suburb about fifteen miles from my office. We started our family right away. My wife, who also had done well professionally, wanted me to be able to spend more time around home than I could if I stayed with the firm, given the long hours and the commuting, so two years ago I resigned from the firm and began my own practice. At the same time, my wife, not wishing to put our baby in day care, resigned her job with a law firm to share the practice with me, insofar as possible, doing the work at home. We are succeeding very well, much better in fact than I expected. The work is varied and sometimes challenging, and we enjoy what we do of it together.

Our income from the practice is growing steadily. Our fee schedule is about average in our area, and many of our clients have no trouble paying. But we know it is a real burden for some of them, and a residue of my youthful idealism still lingers. It would be interesting to have your thoughts on whether at some point we should limit our professional income by doing some pro bono work or should give away the excess, and, if we should, how to identify that point.


This question calls for the derivation of norms. Assuming the free market in legal services works to establish fair prices, the questioner and his wife may charge according to the average fee schedule for services to clients willing and able to pay. The couple can determine how much income they should earn by limiting their spending and saving to levels adequate to meet moderately their current and future genuine needs, which are the reasonable and appropriate means for fulfilling vocational responsibilities. When they begin to accumulate a surplus, they could donate their excess income to charity, but, in my judgment, it will be more appropriate for them to use their excess capacity to serve people who cannot afford needed legal services.

The reply could be along the following lines:

When the legal profession attracted you as an idealistic college student, you saw it as an opportunity to use your gifts and energy in serving others. That vision is not only consistent with organizing your life by the Christian principle of following Jesus but essential to doing so. You and your wife also seem to have had a sound basis and right attitudes in marrying and starting your family. Your asking about a possible responsibility to limit your professional income or give away part of it is another sign of your Christian sense of values. Therefore, I think you will understand and be able to accept the following response, which will show how you can use your vocational commitments to shape your financial affairs.

Some people argue that lawyers have organized and maintain a monopoly on the delivery of legal services, and that this monopoly, which resists the operation of market forces, enables them to extort unjust fees from clients. The monopoly, it is claimed, is particularly egregious in preventing trained nonprofessionals—so-called paralegals—from doing many sorts of work they could do as well as lawyers at far less cost. While there may be some truth to this view, in answering your question I shall assume its contrary: that, considering the character of the practice of law, the number of available practitioners, and the readiness of many lawyers to engage without charge in a preliminary discussion with a prospective client, there is in most places a rather free and effective market in legal services. As in other cases where there seems to be a free market, one also may begin with the presumption that the market in legal services usually works to establish fair prices (see q. 144, above). So, I see no moral problem in asking the average fee of those ready, willing, and able to pay. Indeed, you could be justified in charging them more than the average if your services are superior to those of other lawyers and so are more highly valued by prospective clients.

Of course, in some instances even the standard fee can be unfair, and you should settle for less—for example, if you take what seems a simple case, bad luck complicates it, the client never will be able to pay, and your withdrawal would spell disaster. Moreover, nobody is entitled to increase his or her income endlessly while amassing ever-growing wealth or spending ever more lavishly to satisfy fresh desires as they emerge. Plainly, that violates the moral norms that underlie property rights and Jesus’ teachings about wealth (see LCL, 780–82, 789–92, 800–806, 811–14).

Thus, the primary question you and your wife must answer is: How much income do we need? To answer it, begin by reviewing all your activities and making sure everything you do contributes to carrying out your complete vocations as individuals and as a married couple—in other words, that your time, energy, money, and other resources are used for nothing but living out God’s plan for your lives (see LCL, 113–29). Your vocational responsibilities as a whole determine your genuine needs, since you genuinely need all and only those things that are reasonable and suitable means to fulfilling those responsibilities. Thus, genuine needs refers to more than the conditions for bare survival and professional expenses; it embraces everything to be used in living a morally good life, and so includes such things as a good education for your children, decent recreation, and appropriate gifts to relatives and friends (see LCL, 801).

Even if you regulate the acquisition and use of wealth by the principle of genuine needs, however, it usually is possible to meet a genuine need more and less conveniently and pleasantly. Reflecting on other people’s needs—especially those of the poorest of the poor—and applying the Golden Rule, any upright person will see the appropriateness of living simply, and a Christian, conscious of receiving all goods from God’s merciful hands, will listen to Jesus’ call to practice self-denial, when morally possible, for others’ sakes (see LCL, 360–78). For instance, your family needs some recreation and entertainment, and this need could be met by taking a two-week vacation at a posh resort in the South Pacific. That vacation would be a pleasant experience, but it would cost, say, ten times as much as an alternative that would meet the need about as well, say, two weeks relaxing at the seashore or hiking in the mountains close to home, using moderately priced rather than luxurious facilities. Simplicity and self-denial indicate that one of the less costly alternatives is to be preferred.

Insurance and savings can be legitimate and necessary ways of providing against unacceptable risks and preparing to meet future responsibilities, such as your children’s education and your own support when you can no longer work. But they also can be abused by wealthy people who try to provide for every eventuality, no matter how unlikely. Indeed, miserliness today often is masked as prudence—for example, insuring against losses that would not prevent one from fulfilling any responsibility and saving for retirement based on the most pessimistic assumptions about future economic trends. Even worse is proceeding as if accumulating wealth were an end in itself or using insurance contracts and investment vehicles as ways of gambling (see LCL, 789–92, 800–806, 815–17, 820). Therefore, consider carefully how much insurance and saving will be reasonable and limit them accordingly.

In sum, starting from a clear understanding of your vocational responsibilities and conscientiously identifying your genuine needs, you and your wife will limit both your spending and your saving, begin to accumulate a surplus, and so learn by experience how much income you need. You might consider donating the excess to charity; considered in itself, that would be commendable. Perhaps a chief executive officer successfully managing some large corporation can justly accept a salary of millions of dollars a year and use it rightly by living modestly while frequently helping less prosperous relatives, friends, and acquaintances, and generously contributing to worthy causes. But you have specific gifts and training for whose exercise many poor people have a great, unsatisfied need. By directly putting your gifts to work serving them, you not only will make appropriate use of your abilities for others’ good but, at the same time, build up community between yourselves and those you serve.

So, to limit your income to the amount you need, it would, in my judgment, be appropriate for you to restrict your remunerated legal practice to the group of clients whose fair fees will provide you with income sufficient to meet your needs. That will free you to serve the pressing needs of some people who cannot pay for legal service. In thus fulfilling your original commitment to seek justice for the vulnerable, proceed as in making other vocational commitments. Match your gifts with opportunities for service by considering precisely what you can do, and the characteristics and urgency of others’ needs. Since you have special experience with contracts, you might at first provide service especially in that area to clients, corporate or individual, who can show they need legal help but cannot afford it.

However, I do not think you should limit your pro bono service to deserving but poor clients who happen to come to you, since it may be easy for you to serve others even more deserving and poorer, perhaps by contributing a portion of your time to some legal aid society. That also would have the advantage of structuring your commitment, so that you would be more likely to fulfill it consistently. Eventually, when your children are raised and you have saved enough to retire, you might give up your established practice and begin a new one in a poor neighborhood, providing legal services at minimum cost—for instance, by organizing and overseeing a staff of paralegals and charging only enough to cover expenses.