Help for working poor clients

This information might be helpful for some people who needs attorney services. I found this article on California Bar website.

The go-to legal source for thousands of poor people who have lost their homes or jobs — or both — in these convulsive economic times has been legal aid, and the lawyers who advocate for them have their hands more than full. But local bar associations around the state also offer a little-known program that is helping Californians who do not qualify for legal aid but cannot afford to pay an attorney’s regular rates.

The programs go by a variety of names: Modest Means, Middle Income, Moderate Means, Low-Fee. Most attorneys who meet the qualifications for a bar association’s Legal Referral Service (LRS) are looking for clients to pay a normal hourly rate, often more than $200 to $400 an hour. But some also join the modest means programs and agree to charge lower rates.

“It helps a group of people in the community who often don’t have adequate access to legal help because of cost, and are often ignored,” says Joan Saupé, Moderate Means Committee chair for the Contra Costa County Bar Association. “Many moderate means people cannot afford a $300 an hour-plus attorney, nor do they have the savings for a retainer. These are working people without a lot left after the bills are paid.”

The Santa Clara County Bar Association’s Modest Means Program started in 1990 “because there was a gap between who could use the Lawyer Referral Service and hire attorneys at regular rates and people who qualified for pro bono work,” says Executive Director Chris Burdick. “It’s been very successful … I think it’s a critical component of the whole range of public services we offer.”

The Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) Low Fee Referral Program has been in place since the 1970s. “We’ve always seen a need, although it’s greater now,” says Carol Woods, director of BASF’s Lawyer Referral Service. “We are seeing more people who are facing foreclosure and facing job losses.”

The Santa Clara County Bar Association (SCCBA) advertises the Modest Means program in all its LRS literature and it is offered as a possibility when people call the service. Burdick says calls to Santa Clara’s LRSs are up by 300 percent, but she attributes that to an aggressive ad campaign, not the current economy.

The Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA) is quieter about its Middle Income program. “We certainly don’t push this or advertise it extensively,” says Patricia Holt, directing attorney of LACBA’s Lawyer Referral Service. BASF’s Woods says her organization doesn’t advertise the Low Fee program too widely partly because “we don’t want to raise people’s expectations. You have to be pretty low income to qualify.”

At LACBA, which made 100 Middle Income referrals last year, the lawyer’s rate may be no more than $100 an hour and no more than $500 for a retainer. A person may qualify with income up to about $60,000 in a four-member family. BASF is different from many other programs in that it doesn’t set the fees. “We ask the attorneys who are interested in taking these cases to substantially reduce their hourly rates,” says Woods. “We don’t get into what that would be.” It’s proved its success, she adds, because the rate in which Low Fee referrals retain the attorney is close to the 26 percent retention rate of full-pay referrals.

A number of lower income programs limit the practice area to divorce and other family law issues, but others, such as LACBA, Santa Clara and BASF, offer a wide menu ranging from juvenile dependency to elder law to foreclosures.

The fee structure varies from program to program as do the income requirements of clients. For example, Santa Clara charges flat fees for some services and hourly rates for others. Contra Costa limits gross monthly income for a family of four to no more than $4,375 a month to qualify for the program. Lawyer fees can range from $40 to $125 per hour.

Saupé says the help goes beyond legal technicalities. The attorneys “help calm and direct the whole process,” she says. “In cases with a child, the attorney actively encourages the attitude of thinking of the child first, of cooperating with child raising, of communication with an ex-partner about a child. In cases without a child, just a divorce for example, the attorney encourages being realistic about property division and support and encourages mediation so that the process is less stressful.”

The lower rates don’t mean the fees don’t add up. One Modest Means client of San Diego family law attorney Michael Fischer has accrued $19,000 in legal bills in a messy divorce and custody case in which he charges $75 an hour. The case is not representative of the Modest Means Program, Fischer says, but it does point up the fact that these programs require a commitment from the client.

“There are those who just can’t afford [legal representation] and they should not be deprived of the opportunity under the law just because of their means,” says Fischer. He adds that he prefers “low bono” over pro bono because he says people who are paying nothing often “just want to litigate everything.” In contrast, people who are paying something out of their own pocket “have an incentive to settle.” He estimates that he and his law partner, Craig Van Thiel, average about 20 hours a week altogether on Modest Means cases.

Fischer first became involved in the program when he started practicing in 2005. “Of course, you’re looking for clients from anywhere,” he says. But he doesn’t believe in stopping now, even if the $75 an hour doesn’t always cover overhead. “I think we have an ethical and moral obligation to continue taking clients. The legal system is exceedingly expensive.”
Chris Happ
Happ

Chris Happ, another San Diego family law lawyer, usually charges $200 an hour but, like other San Diego lawyers in the Modest Means programs, charges $75 an hour for the lower income clients. “I treat them the same way I treat my full-fee clients,” Happ says. “I don’t give them discounted service.” In some instances, the costs become more difficult to handle than the clients had anticipated. Happ says he tries to make accommodations, such as creating an installment plan. The discounts don’t only apply to clients he gets through the bar’s referral service, he adds. If a potential client just doesn’t have enough income to pay $200 an hour, he can adjust downward for that client also.

It isn’t just the client who benefits, says Happ. “Part of it is getting experience… It’s given me exposure to many different types of family law.” He has lawyer acquaintances, he adds, who wish the program extended to other types of law and have complained that there’s no similar way for non-family law attorneys to gain the wide experience the programs offer.

“The attorneys who handle the moderate means cases are a caring group,” says Saupé. “They could be earning more outside the program but feel a need to support this group of people and the program goals even though it is a financial sacrifice.”

7 thoughts on “Help for working poor clients”

  1. Sounds good but I have been trying to get in contact with these people who provide the services and its immpossible.

  2. DEAR SIR OR MADAM,
    MY NAME IS GARY L. RIBBLE AND I AM A DISABLED MAN,61 YEARS OLD. I AM MARRIED TO A BEAUTIFUL MEXICAN WOMAN,WHO WORKS FOR A LOCAL MOTEL IN HOUSE KEEPING AND SHE ONLY MAKES MINUMUM WAGE AND VERY FEW HOURS. TOGETHER OUR INCOME OS BARELY ENOUGH TO PAY OUR BILLS,ETC. AND I AM IN NEED OF A LAWYER TO HELP ME OUT IN A COURT APPERANCE I HAVE ON 06/11/2009,IN A SMALL CLAIMS COURT,WHERE THEY ARE GOING TO TRY AND GARINSHEE MY SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY PENSION FOR (2) CREDIT CARDS I OWE ON. THE HEARING IS ONE THAT I MUST APPEAR AND EXPLAIN TO THEM WHY MY DISABILITY PENSION SHOUD NOT BE GARINSHEED AND I AM SCARED TO DEATH AND WANT AN ATTORNEY TO BE PRESENT FOR THIS HEARING,ON MY BEHALF.
    I AM IN A CREDIT MANAGEMENT PROGRAM WITH PERSELS AND ASSOCIATES, CONSUMER LAWYERS. THEY CAN NOT HELP ME IN THIS MATTER,ONLY ADVISE ME WHAT TO DO. MY GUT FEELING TELLS ME IF I DO NOT HAVE A LAWYER PRESENT,FOR MY DEFENSE,THEY WILL DO AS THEY SAY AND WE CAN NOT AFFORD TO LOOSE ANYTHING FROM OUR INCOME BECAUSE WE BARELY MAKE IT ON WHAT WE GOT AND LIKE I SAID,I AM SCARED TO DEATH AND THIS IS NOT GOOD ON MY HEALTH AT THIS TIME.
    MY PROBLEM IS,WE HAVE NO MONEY TO HIRE AN ATTORNEY FOR THIS CASE AND WE REALLY DO NEED HELP VERY BADLY. MY WIFE AND I HAVE HAD NOTHING BUT BAD LUCK FOR 2 YEARS,EVER SINCE WE LOST OUR JOBS,AT VITCO INC. HERE IN NAPPANEE,IN AND I AM TIRED OF BAD LUCK AND HOPE TO GOD YOU CAN HELP US OUT. I NEVER PLANNED ON BEING DISABLED AFTER 42 YEARS OF WORK BUT IT HAPPENED AND I HAVE TO ACCEPT IT AND DO THE BEST I CAN. EVER SINCE I BECAME DISABLED,I HAVE REACHED OUT FOR HELP IN SEVERAL DIRECTIONS AND 90% OF THE TIME,WE WERE TURNED AWAY,FOR ONE REASON OR ANOTHER. SO I AM ASKING YOU,PLEASE DO NOT TURN ME AWAY. I NEED YOUR HELP.
    SO PLEASE WRITE TO ME AND LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ME.SURELY POOR PEOPLE DESERVE LEGAL HELP AS DO THE RICH. WE DID NOT ASK TO BE POOR. IT JUST HAPPENED. SO I WILL AWAIT YOUR REPLY. I THANK YOU FOR YOUR ANTICIPATED HELP AND UNDERSTANDING AND TRULLY HOPE YOU CAN HELP ME OUT.HAVE A VERY BLESSED DAY.
    SINCERELY,
    GARY L. RIBBLE

    • Dear Mr. Ribble,
      I am sorry for my tardy reply, I have been out of the office. Where is your court appearance? The location, date and time? Maybe I can find a lawyer who would help you.

  3. Legal Aid is a big issue – my own grievance is that I earn too much and don’t qualify. To some degree it keeps some businesses alive as they deal with magistrates courts and the majority who want legal representation aren’t on any income.

  4. Dear Mr.Ribble,

    I too have had a similair experience. I read your story and have the utmost respect for your delemma. From my own experience, you have nothing to be afraid of in court. It’s not your fault you became disabled and are unable to pay these credit card mongers back. If you are unable to find an attorney to represent you, hold your head up high, tell the court the truth regarding your situation, apologize to the court and creditor for not being able to pay those idiots back, and hopefully the court will rule in your favor and not garnish your social security disability check. You depend on that check to simply live on and support you and your wife. My best, Sharon Hulihan

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