Bridging the €˜justice gap’

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
By Roy Strom  |  Law Bulletin staff writer
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As a master’s degree student studying theology, Conor Malloy wanted to help large groups of people liberate themselves from oppression.

But ministry wasn’t his thing. So he chose what he said is the next-most pervasive way to impact social justice: Helping low-and-moderate income families handle legal problems.

The Jesuits really wanted to see me throw on a collar one day, said Malloy, a former Loyola University Chicago theology student and IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law graduate. I don’t think I was meant for it. But I think I am doing something similar, just with a little more freedom.

With the help of an initiative announced today by The Chicago Bar Foundation, Malloy might also end up with a little more money in his pocket. He is one of 10 inaugural members of the CBF’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project.

The project is styled after a tech startup incubator right down to the sleek and chic open office space and aims to help new lawyers kick-start sustainable law practices that serve clients who fall into what could be called the justice gap.

The clients are low- and middle-income individuals and families who make too much money to receive legal aid services but not enough to pay lawyers under traditional pricing models, such as a retainer and the billable hour.

It is a historically difficult market to serve and make a living. That is evidenced by the number of pro se litigants who stumble through divorces, foreclosures and custody battles without representation they can afford, lawyers involved with the project said.

There is an increasingly large middle of working poor, blue-collar folks and people in between jobs that can’t make the very stringent financial cutoff for legal aid but can’t afford lawyers, Chicago Corporation Counsel Stephen R. Patton said today at an event in the incubator’s 208 S. Jefferson open-office space.

And I tell you, it’s a real-world thing. And it wasn’t true when I was a kid growing up.

High hopes

The Justice Entrepreneurs Project was planned with the help of well-known people interested in finding new business models for the practice of law, including Steven J. Harper author of the The Lawyer Bubble and a former Kirkland & Ellis LLP partner and IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Ronald W. Staudt.

The project expects to help new practitioners bend the cost curve in their favor. It will teach them to offer a price point, tech-savvy practice style and billing options that will help more pro se litigants pay for legal services. It also hopes to get more young lawyers on their feet after law school.

What we’re really trying to do is find new ways to reach this market by pricing things differently, said the CBF program’s director, Taylor S. Hammond.

It’s also about educating people and letting them know that if they have a legal need it doesn’t have to cost them an arm and a leg.

Jenner & Block LLP partner Terri L. Mascherin said the program is a response to three trends in the legal industry.

One is young lawyers needing to find nontraditional paths into practicing and making money. Another is the slashing of funding for legal aid services. And the third is an inability to train young lawyers who are starting their own practice.

Staudt, director of Chicago-Kent’s Center for Access to Justice and Technology, said he is hopeful the project will spawn practices that are self-sustaining and serving clients who fall in the justice gap.

If this doesn’t work, it can’t work, Staudt said.

Hands-on training

Six months ago, a group of 10 socially minded new lawyers quietly started the incubator which was the culmination of more than three years of planning spearheaded by Robert A. Glaves, CBF executive director.

He had the help of a 19-person steering committee that includes law professors, Big Law partners, legal aid lawyers and in-house counsel and is led by Jenner & Block’s Mascherin.

In the first six months of the 18-month program, the lawyers have a 20-hour-a-week pro bono commitment.

Working at places such as CARPLS, LAF, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and Chicago Legal Clinic, the program is designed to offer the lawyers the training that is missing when a new lawyer hangs a shingle. The legal-aid groups will also refer clients to the incubator lawyers.

Martin Kaczor, a participant in the program, had been building his own family law practice serving Polish clients for about a year after graduating from The John Marshall Law School when he heard about the CBF program last year. The Polish immigrant said the chance to learn from veteran lawyers drew him to apply.

It was exactly the thing I’ve been looking for, said Kaczor, who has been working at the Chicago Legal Clinic the past six months while also running his storefront practice at Belmont and Harlem avenues.

I never really had the chance to do some hands-on training from lawyers who were experts.

The program will add 10 lawyers every six months until 30 lawyers are cycling through at any given time. Resident lawyers will pay no rent the first six months, $300 a month in the second six months and $500 a month for the final half-year.

Organizers hope its graduates will become busy enough to refer clients back to newer sets of incubator lawyers.

In addition to mentors and referrals, the incubator provides technology resources and educational programs, such as practice management courses given by Catherine Sanders Reach, the CBA’s nationally lauded director of law practice management and technology.

LexisNexis has donated free services. Akina Corp., a law firm consultancy, is providing pro bono business coaching. And the incubator lawyers will receive training from SeyfarthLean, the legal process mapping service of Seyfarth, Shaw LLP.

They’re going to help come up with a toolkit €¦ about how to price legal services not by the billable hour, how to think about unbundling services, Glaves said.

The total donations which include law schools offering stipends to their participating graduates are more than $100,000, Glaves said.

Finding a new model

Rethinking how the lawyers run their offices and charge their clients is perhaps the most important aspect of the incubator.

The budding law practices are not providing low bono or discounted legal services. They are attempting to create a profitable business serving a broken portion of the legal market.

Fixing that market will require a law firm with lower costs and upfront prices that consumers living on tight budgets can feel comfortable with.

The traditional approaches obviously haven’t worked well enough for there to be people with law degrees going into this stuff, said Harper, a member of the steering committee. One of the hopes is that this program will be able to build a sustainable and more efficient model.

Malloy, the former theology student, offers a glimpse of how a new generation of lawyers may be able to build a lower-cost practice. He has written his own software that allows him to handle much of his clients’ needs with the click of a mouse.

When I’m preparing these motions for people, it’s stuff that I can churn out, said Malloy, who handles cases involving divorce and child custody.

You give me all your information, I can click a button and I send you the intake letter. (Another click) and you will have the engagement letter, an engagement invoice and a link to my law pay. And it’s all quick.

It’s also a money-saver.

Malloy lists flat fees $125 for a petition for child support and $75 for a response, for instance and also offers unbundled legal services. Only allowed by the Illinois Supreme Court since June, such services allow lawyers to represent clients in a less thorough and less expensive way.

For instance, it allows lawyers to draft motions for clients but not appear as that client’s counsel of record.

In other words, it helps clients who would otherwise fall in the justice gap get an amount of lawyering they can afford, which is key to sustaining lawyers providing services at these lower rates. It also changes the lawyer’s role.

I have to think about the best way to give you the justice you can afford, Malloy said.

It’s pay-to-play. It’s sad. You’ve got kids on the line, and all this other stuff going on in people’s lives €¦ but I have to scrunch that together into this cash nexus and figure out what they best need.

Empathy required

Eleanor Endzel, an incubator participant, remembers what made her interested in helping moderate-income families with their legal problems.

She was watching a divorce trial in Cook County Circuit Court. A pro se woman was trying to enter evidence of her disability to the court, but her attempts were blocked with a few simple motions from her husband’s attorney.

I don’t think she got as good of a result as she would have got with an attorney, and that’s a real problem in our system, she said.

If this woman could have had a few hours with an attorney she could afford €¦ I think it would have worked out better for her. And I’m sure that happens all the time all over the place.

She said she feels like her practice has exploded in recent weeks, and she made enough money to be profitable during November.

The open-office collaboration has been helpful Kaczor even e-mailed her some documents this week and she hopes some of the eventual graduates will choose to replicate it together on their own.

I feel like I’m in a better place than I thought I would be right now. I’m really happy with how far things have come, Endzel said. The best part of this (is) we’re able to make a living and do good work that you feel good about every day.

Other incubator participants started accepting their first clients in the past few weeks. While the feeling surrounding the program is enthusiastic, it will take time to tell if it can bridge the justice gap.

Malloy said volume is the key to his practice being successful. He is confident he will soon churn out enough unbundled services to support his family.

My wife works, but I also have two little baby birds, Malloy said. So, am I making as much money to live on right now and be the big bread-winner? No. But it was a calculated risk.
©2013 by Law Bulletin Publishing Company

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