Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why Can't I Afford a Lawyer?

When people think about going to see a lawyer, especially those who have had no need or occasion to do so before, they may think of a law office such as seen in Hollywood.  Marble entryways, tall towers, elegant receptions.  For many lawyers in this country, that is indeed how they surround themselves.  These tall tower lawyers come at steep prices, for you not only have to pay for their time but also their overhead.  Quite often these firms will seek a large retainer to even begin to work on your matter.  The next step down are the mid-sized firm lawyers.  These are usually elegantly decorated, well staffed, and found in office complexes that spring up around Courthouses from sea to shining sea.  Their overhead being somewhat less, their rates become more affordable, but still, for the vast majority of the people in this country they are outside of the reach of the masses.  

Unfortunately, the rates of the prior two groups of attorneys don't seem to go down much for the remainder of the lawyers out there.  The solo-practitioner and the small firm attorney, while vastly cheaper than the tall tower firms and the mid sized firms, are still out of reach or outside of economic rationality.  Let me put it another way.  Let's say a potential client comes to see a lawyer.  The PC has been sued for $2000.00.  They may have a valid defense, but that doesn't really matter if it costs upwards of $1000 to defend it.  The client may be better served by simply offering that money to the creditor as a settlement.  

Why must it cost so much to represent this person?  Well, a few reasons.  If a lawyer files an answer for a defendant, most courts will say that lawyer has "entered his appearance."  This means the court will expect the lawyer to be there in the event of a trial, for motions, status conferences, etc.  All of these things take time that the lawyer could be spending writing blogs, drinking coffee, or even representing other clients.

Monday, March 11, 2013

My Introduction to Unbundled Practice

So, I'm sitting in my office one day plowing through a stack of bankruptcy paperwork, getting ready to file a half dozen Chapter 7 petitions when I get a call from a potential client.  She's got a negligible amount of debt, but she just can't afford to pay it back right now and one creditor is suing her.  Her total debt is a little bit higher than my fee, but really, not by much.  I'm about to thank her for her call but tell her that I don't think my firm can help her when she says "I don't even think I owe these people any money, but I don't know what to do.  They're suing me and they'll get a judgment unless I get a lawyer to help me."  I set an appointment, reviewed the complaint and realized quickly that there wasn't enough here to get a judgment, but if she did nothing, they would get one anyway.  I also realized that for her the economics just didn't work.  Even billing at a reduced hourly rate, she would pay me more than she was alleged to have owed the plaintiff.  I also realized that there were many other people in this situation, being sued by debt buyers and collection agencies on debts that were past the Statute of Limitations, undocumented, or satisfied.  People are sued every day who have a completely valid legal defense and no clue how to raise those defenses and have their case heard.  It was a problem, but there were solutions available and I just didn't know it.  I did what I probably never should have done.  I gave her advice, I coached her on how she should respond to the complaint, what she should tell the judge when she got a hearing, and what to expect.  Three months later she called to thank me.  The complaint had been dismissed by the plaintiff when she challenged their lack of documentation of the debt. 

As I developed my practice, I discovered a lot about this pioneering form of legal practice, including the sad discovery that not all of my fellow lawyers understood or were even aware of the availability of this remedy for the chronicly unrepresented and that is what I and various other of my associates will be discussing in this blog.

Others have recognized the problems facing the legal industry.  Courts are clogged with people trying to slog through on their own.  Lawyers are expensive and often the amounts at stake just don't warrant a huge fee, or one of the parties just can't afford it.  Recently a project by professors at the University of Maryland School of Law began recruiting attorneys to provide full legal services for free in exchange for training.  This is laudable from a charitable perspective, but all it has managed to do so far is slow the tide.

Something needs to change, and soon.  I'm not sure what the answers are.  I have my thoughts.  I'm sure you have yours as well.  Is legal insurance the answer that some have suggested?  Maybe, after all, look how well it's done in the medical field.

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