New Group Aims To Help Attys Meet Middle Class Legal Needs

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While the high cost of private attorneys puts civil legal representation out of reach for many members of the middle class, a new group spearheaded by the Chicago Bar Foundation and Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver aims to help lawyers adopt cost-conscious pricing models. ( Bambina)

When Priscilla Jones and her then-husband separated in 2011, the Aurora, Colorado, resident said she was stunned at how much it would cost to hire a divorce lawyer to finalize the breakup. And so, for years, she didn't.

At the time, Jones was attending college and working full time as a hospital care manager handling insurance issues, all while caring — suddenly on her own — for three young children. Her income was about $50,000 to $60,000 per year, she recalled. It was a salary that put her solidly in the American middle class.

"But again, I had three kids all by myself," she told Law360.

Jones said she spoke with about four divorce attorneys who wanted upfront deposits of about $2,000. Ongoing payments would bring the total cost to as much as $8,000 or $10,000, with no provisions for installment payments, she said.

Part of the problem was that her family situation was contentious and complex, with jointly owned property and unresolved questions of child custody and support, she said.

The proposed legal costs were just too high, she said. So she didn't hire a lawyer — and didn't get divorced.

"I had to stay married to him for years, because lawyers were just too expensive to get a divorce," Jones told Law360.

smiling blonde woman

Priscilla Jones, a resident of Aurora, Colorado, said she couldn't afford to hire an attorney after separating from her then-husband in 2011 despite earning somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000 per year as a hospital care manager. After years of searching, she ultimately found a lawyer focused on working within middle-class budgets. (Courtesy of Priscilla Jones)

Years passed, until one day, searching online for affordable attorneys, she found Lauren Lester.

Lester is a Denver-based private lawyer who has made affordability a cornerstone of her practice. Jones and Lester, who holds down overhead costs by not having her own office, had their first meeting at a Starbucks around the beginning of 2016.

"She was very nice and organized and got all of my information, things like that," Jones said.

Lester was also far less expensive than other attorneys Jones had spoken to in the past: Lester's fee for handling the entire divorce was around $1,200, and she was willing to take installment payments.

The situation illustrates broader issues.

Tens of millions of Americans facing divorce, custody issues, immigration matters and other civil disputes can't afford legal services priced at hundreds of dollars per hour.

And many of them aren't living in poverty; rather, they're in the middle class.

"Access to justice is not only a problem for the poor," the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver said in a 2021 report. "It is a problem that is impacting people from all walks of life, with serious social, legal, economic, and political consequences. Access to justice is particularly challenging for those of low income, but this is also a critical challenge for the middle class in the U.S."

Now, the Denver-based institute and the Chicago Bar Foundation are spearheading the new Above The Line Network, which launched last month with the aim to expand legal services to the middle class through practices such as limited scope legal services and flat-fee pricing.

Its goals for the first two years: to build a supportive community of legal providers who focus on this area, and to build a coalition of allies and funders who promote models for making legal services more affordable. The group also plans to advocate for longer-term systemic changes to expand access to legal services for the middle class.

"One of our nation's ideals is equal justice for all," said Jessica Bednarz, director of legal services and the profession at the Denver-based institute. "And that means everyone: low income population, middle class, everyone. So in order to really achieve that ideal, we really do need to start dedicating more resources to the middle class and figuring out how to serve them."

The network argued in a September strategic planning document that the justice gap impacts a huge swath of the population earning anywhere from just $18,000 per year to nearly $142,000 — which is more than 100 million people.

The new network advocates for attorneys to take steps such as offering affordable flat fees that are friendlier to the middle class.

It's a cause that Bednarz is familiar with after having previously worked for the Chicago Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar Association.

Among the Chicago Bar Foundation's endeavors has been its Justice Entrepreneurs Project, an 18-month program that trains lawyers in the city on how to better serve the middle-income market through concepts such as fixed fees, limited-scope representation and a la carte legal services.

But the Justice Entrepreneurs Project focuses just on the Chicago area.

After moving to the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, Bednarz said she saw an excellent platform to expand the Justice Entrepreneurs Project's ideas from the Chicago area to the entire U.S. and into Canada.

Justice Entrepreneurs Project alums are at the forefront of delivering affordable legal services to the middle class and using innovative approaches to serve the market, said Roya Samarghandi, associate director for advocacy, innovation and training at the Chicago Bar Foundation.

"Not just transparent and predictable pricing, but also offering limited-scope or unbundled services; really leveraging technology to be accessible and more efficient," she said.

One of the key messages of the new national network: Charitable efforts can only go so far, and the free market and profit motive can help solve the problem.

To put it another way, pent-up demand from the middle class means lawyers can make significant money by tailoring their services to this population, rather than to corporations and to the wealthy.

Lawyers sometimes forget that billing by the hour is a relatively recent development in the United States. It wasn't standard practice until the 1960s, then-ABA president Robert Hirshon wrote in a widely cited 2002 ABA Journal article.

"People think that's the way it's always been done, which is a fallacy," Samarghandi said.

Some lawyers who've gone through the Justice Entrepreneurs Project program and who use fixed-fee services and other affordable pricing options now have revenues of more than $1 million per year, Samarghandi said.

"And so if you're willing to take advantage of a market that's not currently being served, and you're able to do it well and efficiently, you could be making a very good income," she said.

Samarghandi said that in its first year, Above the Line Network aims to bring people together to share ideas.

Among the other organizations the group cites as models are Charleston Legal Access in South Carolina; Courtroom5, a service which offers tools and advice for pro se litigants; Everyone Legal Clinic in British Columbia, Canada; and the DC Affordable Law Firm in Washington, D.C.

"I would say a big part of what we've heard from the people either already doing this work or wanting to be doing this work is that they lack a community," Samarghandi said. "And so I think for the first year, really being intentional about building that community is also going to be key."

Balancing Profits and People

Lauren Lester, whose practice in Denver focuses on wills and estate matters in addition to family law, said she has managed to build a sustainable, profitable business.

smiling dark haired woman

When Lauren Lester launched her Denver-area legal practice nearly 10 years ago, she said she made a conscious choice to be as transparent as possible about her pricing, and to provide potential clients with options to allow them to work within their budgets. (Courtesy of Lauren Lester)

"I run a very profitable business and make well into six figures in terms of revenue," she told Law360. "So it's not a 'low bono' [or] pro bono kind of practice. It's for-profit for sure."

It's also a part-time business: Lester is a mother of two and works just 20 to 30 hours a week, taking off every Friday.

Law is her second career. Before going to law school at Georgia State University College of Law, she worked in project management and website development for several years. After earning her law degree in 2015, she and her husband relocated to Denver, where she launched her solo firm.

As she set up the business, she asked colleagues about pricing and billing practices. Everyone was telling her to bill by the hour, perhaps $250 or $300 per hour, she recalled.

She realized that if she followed their advice, she would be setting the prices so high that she herself could not afford the service.

"And when I realized that, in good conscience, I just couldn't build a business that I couldn't be a patron of," she said.

Lester tried to think about what she would want if she was the one hiring a law firm. "And that's where the predictable, transparent pricing came about."

Today, her website lists prices for services. Her estate planning packages start at $1,800.

For divorce — long the bread and butter of her firm's business — she offers a menu of options.

For the simplest divorce cases, she sells a $99 subscription to a do-it-yourself package of articles and videos she created about Colorado divorce procedures.

Other divorce-related packages cost $2,575 or $4,850, depending on items such as whether the client is willing to try to write the first draft of documents and have the attorney review them, or whether the client wants the attorney to write the first draft. In the higher-price packages, Lester personally handles negotiations and mediations.

A separate menu lists specific services a la carte. For instance, reviewing a document costs $575. To have Lester attend a mediation with you and draft an agreement, the cost is $1,975.

website pricing screenshots

Screenshots from the website for Lester's practice show pricing packages for estate planning (left two columns) as well as guardianship and conservatorship services. (Courtesy of Lauren Lester)

Lester said she's planning to move away from family law and place a greater emphasis on her other practice areas such as wills, estates and prenuptial agreements. Her packages of estate-planning services start at $1,800 or $2,850, depending on whether they include trusts and plans for minor children.

Lester said clients appreciate the price menu.

"A lot of folks who will call me will say they have tried to reach out to other law firms and [that] getting any kind of information, especially around pricing, is really difficult," she said. "It's like pulling teeth; it's very opaque. They can't even get, like, a range."

Lester said she works to keep her business profitable by keeping costs low. She has no brick-and-mortar office and works alone, without a paralegal or other support staff. She uses automatic electronic templates to speed up the process of collecting information and writing documents.

Most of her clients aim to settle their divorce cases out of court, which helps control demands on her time, she said.

She recommends that attorneys who want to offer the same services she does should visit, a resource she co-created that helps lawyers figure out how much to charge.

Building a Better Life in Denver

For Jones, the Colorado resident who couldn't afford a divorce lawyer, life has improved dramatically in recent years. Now 40, she's remarried, her children are older, she finished her degree, and she now works for the federal government as a disability examiner, reviewing records for Social Security claims.

She said she supports the push to expand access to legal services to the middle class.

"It's crazy how expensive it is," Jones said. "And [lawyers] are charging [for] emails and every contact. It's just ridiculous."

In the meantime, she said she has friends whose marriages are also ending and who are suffering serious consequences trying to navigate the process on their own.

"Because they don't have legal representation," she said.

--Editing by Lakshna Mehta.

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