Jerry Moberg & Associates recently completed our first Free Legal Clinic. The lessons we learned from this clinic were that people are honest; people are appreciative of the help you give them; and that most people in our society with legal problems cannot afford lawyers. The clinic also reminded me of the importance of finding a way to provide effective legal services to the middle class clients who do not qualify for free legal aid but who also cannot afford to hire an attorney on an hourly fee basis.
Lawyers share an earned reputation of being too expensive, elitist and unconcerned about the average person. As members of this great profession we need to come up with better strategies to meet the legal needs of the middle class. I salute the “low bono” projects that have been launched in this country and the lawyers who are offering “low bono” services. I think that is the start of the right approach.
I own a firm that has plenty of corporate clients who can afford our standard charges. We are experienced litigators and for those corporate clients the traditional hourly rate system works. But for most of the public, the hourly rate system is a complete bust. The business model of charging the client hourly until they cannot afford it any more and then showing them the door is not working and is a short-sighted marketing plan.
As lawyers we need better strategies. We need to become more efficient in the delivery of legal services. We need to reduce the cost of legal representation. The Washington State Bar Association has been a leader in this field. The WSBA was active in adopting rules that permit lawyers to provide limited representation of clients, sometimes referred to as “unbundled” legal services. Lawyers can partnership with the client and provided limited representation such as drafting pleadings and coaching the client while the client can continue to act pro se.
In our office, when the client asks us “How much is this going to cost” our answer is “You tell me.” We work with our clients to create an affordable plan to accomplish their goals. We provide the client with limited legal support and let the client continue to act pro se. Our fee agreement clearly sets out the work that we will do and the actual cost. This approach has been surprisingly successful. For example, representing a tenant in an eviction (or a landlord for that matter) we will draft the critical pleadings, coach the client on when and how to appear in court, and be available for telephone consults, while the client goes to court and handles the remaining issues. For $400 or $500 we can provide the client the basic legal services needed without becoming fully involved in the litigation.
The WSBA is also the leader in limited licensed legal technicians or LLLT’s. We were honored to have one of our paralegal’s recently licensed as a LLLT in family law. She was thoroughly trained through the rigorous education requirements of the LLLT program, passed an LLLT bar examination, and, in my view, is as knowledgeable in the area of family law as most lawyers. In her practice, she can complete the necessary forms in a dissolution, advise the client of the various aspects of the proceeding, coach the client on how to continue to act pro se, and is available for telephone consults with the client as needed. For $100 an hour, she can provide the client with necessary and affordable assistance in a variety of family law actions.
It has been estimated that the unmet legal needs of the middle class is an untouched billion dollar market. Lawyers who are resourceful enough to figure out how to meet those needs will enjoy the financial benefit of that underrepresented market and the satisfaction of representing the little guy or the mom and pop business. Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer have stepped in to fill the void where lawyers currently fear to tread. I am confident that a client will pay a local lawyer more than these online services charge simply because of the human interaction we can provide them. We only need to streamline our document production, become more efficient in the drafting of pleadings and willing to adapt to this changing legal market. The next time you see a client who cannot afford your traditional hourly fee approach, ask them what they can afford to spend on the case, what they want to accomplish, and then design a plan in partnership with them that will meet their needs. You will be surprised who well this works. Do it because it is the right thing to do and I am sure you will be rewarded for your efforts.