$20 > $0.
That's the simple math that is baffling the legal community and professors. If so many young lawyers are unemployed, why aren't they taking low income clients who can't afford more expensive attorneys? Yes, you have high debt, and yes this isn't enough to pay your bills, but at the end of the day, it's better to have $20 in your pocket than $0.
The first answer is an economic barrier. There is a cost in practicing law, and you can't get it down to zero. If nothing else you're going to have malpractice insurance and commuting expenses (if you can't afford to pay for research, you at least have to pay for gas to drive to the library). The option isn't $20 or $0, it's $0 or spinning the wheel and ending with either $20 or -$100. To a lot of young graduates, that's not a gamble worth taking. For others the expenses exceed their cash on hand and they can't place the bet even if they wanted to.
The second answer is a skill barrier. Some people are willing to take on work they have no idea how to do and run the risk of a monumental screw up. Other people out of either integrity or just a fear of failure, won't represent someone they aren't qualified to represent. They haven't been in the profession long enough to pick up the shyster skill.
Those are the garden variety explanations, but I'm going to put forth a new one that I haven't seen elsewhere. Young, unemployed lawyers aren't taking on low-income clients because of the opportunity cost.
Opportunity cost? What opportunity cost? These people are unemployed! Forgoing $0 isn't exactly a detriment.
That's not the opportunity cost though. The cost of taking on low paying clients is that you forgo the chance to find full time (or even part time) work elsewhere. You can't ask for time off from a doc review project in order to prepare for a trial, or even to go to a motion argument. You'll lose your job, and quite possibly be blacklisted from future projects. You can't apply to a min-wage non-professional job and then tell your interviewer that you can't start work for a month while you clear your calendar; there's a horde of equally qualified people who can start the job today.
Joe Sixpack is arrested on a drunk and disorderly and simple assault charge following a bar fight. He's a friend of a friend, and word gets through the grapevine that you're freshly barred and in search of work, and will take his case on the cheap. You don't see the whole thing requiring more than 10 hours, and offer to take the case for $200. Access to justice solved!
Arraignment is set for the next day, you show up, and then the judge informs you that the trial date is set for a month from now. You're now effectively prevented from taking any other work until the trial is concluded (and you'd better hope it's not delayed for any reason), and you can't drop the case.
The brilliant economic minds of Law and Social Policy University College of Law will point out that $200 is still higher than $0. Take the case, they say. The problem is that you need $2000 a month to get by. Maybe you'll get other clients and be able to scrape together enough cash, maybe not. But, by taking that first low-paying client, you're taking a small chance of getting a job that would pay your bills and reducing that chance to 0.
If you're on unemployment the math is even worse. You're not up $200 by taking the client because your unemployment check will be reduced by $200. Unless you're earning more than your unemployment benefits you're getting the exact same pay. So, the same amount of money and a greatly reduced chance of long term stability.
I've seen a lot of people say the reason they can't take low income clients is their debt level. You can't pay off $100,000 or $200,000 of debt taking cases at $100 or $200 each. And of course the response is that you can pay it off easier with an occasional $200 than with an occasional $0, and besides, $200 is $200 no matter if your debt is $25,000 or $250,000, so your high debt load can't possibly be why young lawyers refuse to help low income clients.
Once we look at the opportunity cost though, the role of debt becomes clear. The minimum amount of money you need to get by sets the threshold for how much you need to make in order to commit to a job. As long as debt pushes up your expenses it raises your threshold and forces you to forgo low paid opportunities in order to hold out for an adequately paying job.
God: Bender, being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch. Like a safecracker, or a pickpocket.
Bender: Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money!
God: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.