For years now, there have been cries for more affordable “Access To Justice.” That is, to find ways to provide legal representation to those with low to modest income. From the federal government, to the states, and all the way down to individual counties, there have been a variety of initiatives bandied about that seek to bridge the access to justice gap. Sure there are public defenders, but they are overworked and legal aid is spread thin. So people continue to try new ways to provide affordable legal services. And a few lawyers in Utah think they have an idea to solve the problem…
A story in the Atlantic yesterday highlighted Shantelle Argyle and Daniel Spencer. The pair had idea for a law firm that would operate as a non-profit and function on a sliding scale to accommodate their client’s income level:
Instead of providing representation for free and surviving on grants, they decided to charge for their services.
But instead of charging a flat fee, they index their hourly rates to each client’s income on a simple sliding scale that’s published on their website. As their pricing table shows, a client’s rate is determined only by family size and family income. At the low end, for example, a family of four earning $30,000 per year now pays $50 per hour for [Open Legal Services] OLS’s services; at the high end, the rate for a family of four making $95,000 per year is $135. As OLS’s average hourly fee to date—$55—shows, their client base thus far has skewed toward the lower side of the matrix.
It’s not an entirely new idea — as the article notes there are a few other non-profits with similar models. And in addition to providing low-cost legal services, Argyle and Spencer are eager to point out that their model also helps with the current glut of unemployed law graduates. But does it really?
Perhaps the second largest problem facing new lawyers, outside of unemployment, is a lack of practical education on how to actually be a lawyer. While there are all sorts of suggestions on how to address this lack of real-world education, none of them are particularly good. And while something like OLS might be able to address this deficit, OLS does not. On the OLS website there is a lot of talk about “revolution,” but not much about the background or experience of the attorneys who make up OLS. A brief search on the Utah State Bar’s website shows that Argyle and Spencer were both admitted in October of 2013. They have been practicing for less than a year. Perhaps they focused on public service in law school. Maybe they summered at a public defenders’ office. But as it stands now, there is no way to tell. And even if they had, such experiences are no substitute for actually learning the practice of law under the guidance of an experienced lawyer.
Argyle and Spencer looked at the bleak job market and took the initiative to forge a new path that would provide them employment and also help the less privileged. Good for them. But providing low cost legal services alone isn’t the answer. The answer is providing competent, low-cost legal services. And I question whether or not someone with less than a year of experience under their belts can provide competent representation for some of the cases they say they handle. I’m not here to disparage OLS for what they are doing — I actually think it is a good idea. But it needs to be tempered with guidance and counsel of experienced attorneys to help these new lawyers make sure they are not hurting more than they are helping. And again, perhaps they do.
But as it stands right now, who knows?
Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @associatesmind.