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.

LLLT’S IN TODAYS PRACTICE

BY JERRY J. MOBERG[1]

I currently have two paralegals in the Limited Legal Licensed Technicians (LLLT’s) training program.  I am often asked “Why?”  This is a fair question without a simple answer.  The law practice in the 21st Century is changing rapidly.  The client base is shifting.  We have a large unserved or underserved clientele of middle class and lower middle class clients that cannot afford attorneys under the traditional model of service.  The model of charging at my predetermined hourly rate to serve the client until they cannot afford to pay anymore and then turning them out on their own is simply not working.  It creates issues with the client and reflects poorly on the profession.  Lawyers need to think more creatively on how best to meet the needs of the clients of the 21st Century.

I must confess that I am blessed with a cadre of clients that can afford my hourly rates.  Yet, even these clients are asking me to consider strategies that can streamline their legal costs.  Therefore, I have started to give more serious thought to how we can best deliver legal services in the modern era.  We are exploring ideas like flat fee billings with corporate clients to avoid potential cost overruns.  We are employing limited representation agreements (a/k/a unbundled legal services) with clients who need very specific assistance but do not want to sign on for complete representation.  We are constantly looking for ways to streamline the work we do to make it more cost effective.  When consulting with new clients about fees we often ask them how they would like the fee agreement structured.  Surprisingly many of our clients will come up with fee proposals that are fair, make good sense and allow us to provide services that the client can afford.

However, the bottom line to all of the innovative fee arrangements is that we need to be able to deliver more effective legal services for less money.  To do that we need to streamline our internal costs and delegate as much work as practicable to support staff.  Which brings me back to the question, “Why LLLT’s?”  Under the current WSBA required training program LLLT’s are very well trained in the mundane and daily tasks of a domestic relations practice.  They can answer a client’s basic questions about the process and can draft the basis pleadings.  They can do this independently and at an hourly rate lower than the attorney’s rate.  If you couple this with an interactive website, streamlined procedures, and an effective document engine, a solo or small sized law firm can handle an increased volume of domestic relations cases at a profit.  These are cases that you are not presently interested in because they are cost prohibitive.

 And where do you find these clients?  They are right in front of you.  The statistics are clear.  Approximately 80% of clients who have legal needs are currently unable to afford attorneys in our current model of service delivery.  However, this is also a multi-billion dollar untapped market.  These same potential clients who cannot afford to pay rates of $200-$300 an hour or higher can afford rates at $75-$100 an hour.  In my community, I can charge out my paralegals at $75 per hour and cover all of their salary and overhead and still make a modest profit.  I can do the same with LLLT’s. With LLLt’s my office can serve middle class clients who can afford and are willing to pay $750-$1,000 to have an LLLT assist them in filling out the forms and assist them in completing a simple dissolution proceeding.  It is a win-win proposition.  We can provide the service at an affordable rate and the client has the peace of mind of being represented by a professional.  .

I often hear the argument that LLLT’s are “moving in” on the lawyer’s turf.  A careful analysis of this argument demonstrates its fallacy.  This is turf upon which most lawyers refuse to tread.  The work simply does not pay enough for their effort.  It is turf that LLLT’s know well and upon which they are happy to walk. The work of LLLT’s is not taking away work from lawyers.  Frankly, if an attorney is willing to do this work at the same rates charged by LLLT’s I am sure the client would prefer to be represented by the attorney.  I just don’t see many attorneys campaigning for this work.

LLLT’s provide other advantages to the firm.   In addition to the direct benefit gained from the efficient use of LLLT’s there is a secondary gain as well.  Working with these clients often will result in referrals of other work from their family and friends.  These clients may need an attorney to assist them in the probate of an estate or may need assistance on a personal injury claim.  It is very likely that they will come back you your firm to handle these other legal problems in the future.

 In addition, it is the right thing to do.  As lawyers we are called upon to assist citizens in resolving their social disputes.  We owe it to the public we serve to make available to them affordable legal representation.  There are successful “low bono” law firms starting up all over the country.  Many of them are non-profit firms but many are for-profit.  They are able to provide legal services at reduce rates, some as low as $50 per hour and still make a decent living as a lawyer.  There is no reason why existing “established” firms cannot provide the same legal services for these clients at an affordable rate.

Our LLLT’s are fully employed by my firm.  Therefore, they are working under the direct supervision of the attorneys in the firm.  If the uncontested dissolution runs into a roadblock that takes it outside of the authority of the LLLT then the file can be referred to the attorney for assistance.  This will likely require a modification of the fee agreement but it is also the source of additional reasonably profitable work for the attorney.

The WSBA is now looking at other practice areas for LLLT’s.  They are considering areas like probate and landlord tenant law.  As these areas are opened up the opportunities for developing additional revenue in your firm and serving an underserved segment of the population is endless.

Admittedly, LLLT’s are not for everybody.  Many law firms are doing just fine under the current model.  But we are facing increased competition from non-attorney businesses that are providing clients services that we once thought were traditionally provided by attorneys.  Legal Zoom, Rocket Lawyer, and a number of other similar organizations are providing low cost legal forms to a vast number of clients.  As lawyers, if we are not adaptive enough to meet the competition we will be left standing on the side of the road.  I am convinced that most clients will pay some premium over the rates of non-attorney providers to be represented by a law firm and to have access to a representative of the firm.  However, to stay competitive we must streamline our procedures and lower our costs to meet the competition.  LLLT’s are and will be an important part of this strategy going forward.  So in when you ask “Why LLLT’s” my answer is because they are necessary for us to compete in the legal market in the 21st Century.

[1] Jerry Moberg is a “country lawyer” and  operates a modest sized law firm in Grant County representing individuals and municipalities in a variety of areas.  The firm primarily focuses on litigation but has an expanding cadre of individual clients with a variety of legal needs.

My life as a Country Lawyer

I grew up in Eastern Washington in the small town of Moses Lake.  My dad was a lawyer there.  I remember as a youngster raising chickens in the backyard of our rural home as a food staple.  I never had a key to our house.  It did not even dawn on me that a key was useful for any purpose as our front door was never locked.  My mom stored the keys to her car in the cars ignition so she always knew where they were.  We had party lines, black and white TV’s that we covered with a rainbow colored sheet of plastic to make it a color TV.  We rode our bikes all over the neighborhood and played outside well past dark without any care or concern. When I went to visit my girlfriend my mom would know because the neighbor lady would call her.  If I was in trouble at school the principal would usually tell my dad when they were playing golf on Saturday.  Mom would drop us off at the pool in the summer time and leave us there most of the day.  Living in a small town was an idyllic life.

 It was in this same wonderful small town that I started my law practice.  While eventually I developed a litigation practice, when I first started I handled everything from Adoptions to Wills.  We handled family law issues and were often paid in poultry or vegetables.  You handled whatever came through the door.   In the first few years of my practice I handled a wide variety of civil and criminal cases.  In my first 5 years of practice I handled a First Degree Murder trial (Court Appointed) and a federal criminal trial that ended up arguing before the United States Supreme Court (U.S. v Powell, 423 U.S. 87 (1975).  Practicing in a small town allowed me to take cases that were not available to my classmates who set off to the big cities to make their fortune.

My father had unsuccessfully run for Superior Court judge.  I also ran years later against a 10 year incumbent and was elected and proudly served as a Grant County Superior Court judge.  I retired from the bench to return to my first love, trying cases.  I developed an active trial practice trying cases in nearly every county in Washington.  I was fortunate to have tried over 100 trials to verdict.

I am now on the back nine of my legal career and looking back I am grateful that I was raised in a small town and have worked for over 40 years as a simple country lawyer.  My law firm now includes 6 lawyers, in offices in Moses Lake, Ephrata and Seattle.  One of my son’s is in my practice and one of my daughters is studying the law with me as a Rule 6 Clerk.

Our practice remains varied although we have developed a substantial litigation practice representing school districts, cities and counties is a variety of civil cases.  It is my country roots that cause me to reflect today on the high cost of attorneys and of civil litigation and to formulate strategies where we can effectively represent individuals, farmers, ranchers and small businesses in all phases of litigation at a reasonable price.  We employ fixed fee agreements and limited representation agreements (aka bundled legal services) with some of our clients to create affordable representation.  Our overhead is lower than the big cities and our hourly rates are correspondingly lower.   My rural upbringing has influenced how our firm is developing its business.  We have to come up with strategies that open the door to every day folks to access high quality legal services at an affordable price.  Many of our future blogs will focus on this important goal.