Oregon State Bar Bulletin JANUARY 2014
By Michael Duane Brown
Access to justice is a problem for all of us, not just minorities or economically disadvantaged. “How much justice can you afford?” Too often the answer is, “Not much.” Our lives are degraded by injustice, both trivial and traumatic. The problem is lawyers cost too much.
The average hourly rate for Oregon practitioners is $242. Clients cannot afford the time to state the problem, let alone hire the lawyer to fix it! “Equal justice for all” is not reality for folks locked out of the justice system by high cost of lawyers.
Without affordable lawyers, there is a downward baseline shift in what we’ve come to expect from life. “Customer service” has become a punchline of gallows humor, with increasing frustration from unfairness permeating daily living. How can we be a great nation of promise and “beacon of justice” to others, if we don’t have it ourselves?
As a lawyer, I wanted to help people. OK, truthfully, I wanted to be a well-paid “hired gun.” With some maturity, I also wanted significance in my life. Too often, I could not help deserving people, even with both facts and law on their side, because of the cost. The best legal advice I could give them was to not hire any lawyer, because the cost was too high. It haunts me, that I was unable to help these folks.
I submit that the solution is prepaid legal plans, which provide members with affordable access to quality lawyers. Amazon eBooks changed how books are bought, sold and published. Legal plans change how clients obtain legal services. If a person is a member of a legal plan, they get legal service. If not, they don’t … because lawyers cost too much.
Prepaid legal plans have been endorsed by the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), a savvy group with no interest other than equal justice for all.
Legal plans dramatically increase access to justice, because they dramatically improve the cost-benefit ratio.
A legal plan turns the tables on those who cause injustice. Wrongdoers tend to ignore the pleas of those without a legal plan, because they know that legal redress for the victim costs too much. However, victims with a legal plan already have a lawyer, and it’s the wrong-doer cannot afford the legal cost to offend. A call or letter from a lawyer can quickly change everything.
The question for practitioners is whether legal plans are a competitive threat or a new opportunity? If consumers win by avoiding high fees for legal services, must the practitioner lose? Not necessarily.
As the cost of legal services goes down with a legal plan, the demand for legal services goes up. Folks use lawyers more, if they do not have to pay high hourly fees.
Legal plans connect the client with the right lawyer, one who is available and can do the legal work. The lawyer avoids marketing expense to locate the client. The client avoids spending time looking for a lawyer, when they really want/need to be talking with a lawyer. That’s a win for both lawyer and client.
What about the high hourly fees? If the lawyer is not hired to receive fees, surely that has to hurt lawyers’ income? Not necessarily. In situations where the party cannot afford the lawyer, or if the party needs legal services outside the lawyer’s practice area, the lawyer would not receive any income from the party.
Even in those situations lawyers can benefit financially, if the lawyer is also an associate for the legal plan. Lawyers can enroll as members those who: 1) cannot afford to hire the lawyer; or 2) the lawyer could not otherwise represent. This creates an additional income stream from commissions and residual income, paid by the legal plan to the lawyer.
When a lawyer enrolls a person in a legal plan, the lawyer helps the person who could not otherwise afford the lawyer and also the person needing services outside the lawyer’s practice area.
Instead of saying, “Sorry, I can’t help you,” the lawyer can say, “Let me show you another option.”
If person has the money, he can hire the lawyer who can directly provide the service. If the person cannot afford the lawyer, then the person and the lawyer would benefit by the lawyer offering to enroll the person in a legal plan. As Humphrey Bogart’s “Rick” said to “Louis” at the end of Casablanca, this could be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Duane Brown is a former prosecutor and trial lawyer in a law partnership. He is now a mediator/arbitrator and also business and group specialist for LegalShield.
© 2014 Michael Duane Brown