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.