I told an anonymous document review whiner in this post that I would gladly spread his name if he was interested in representing human beings in their common disputes for little money. He didn’t take me up on it (it now transpires that he has actual clients, not just pretend ones, which one would never guess from the desperate tone of his blog), but another lawyer did.
There will be those who disagree with the idea of helping connect lawyers of unknown quality with clients of unknown requirements. So let me explain.
Generally, I am opposed to the hiring of low-bid lawyers. In my arena, most of the fees are flat rather than hourly. Resolving criminal cases well requires spending time on them, but resolving them badly doesn’t. So paying a lawyer a low flat fee to handle a criminal case invites being treated like a package to be delivered, rather than a client to be fought for. (Yes, every rule has an exception, and once upon a time I charged unreasonably low fees for criminal cases because I needed the business.)
Paying a lawyer a low hourly fee doesn’t invite the same treatment. (Rather, it invites being treated like the most important client in the world, deserving of every possible effort, which has its own costs.) And I know next to nothing about landlord-tenant law, bankruptcy, consumer law, or family law.
But I do know that, just as the working poor have trouble finding decent lawyers in criminal cases, most people can’t afford $100-plus per hour to help them resolve their disputes in other areas of law.
So here we are, with legal services difficult for working-class Americans to afford. And at the same time, we have lawyers being laid off from their jobs, unable to get new jobs, and taking contract document-review jobs at $35, $30, $25 an hour or less to make ends meet.
Is it better, as a general principle, for the clients to have no lawyer at all than to have a low-budget lawyer? In my opinion (I realize that this will be controversial), no. There will no doubt be lousy low-budget lawyers, incompetent, unconscientious, or even dishonest. But I’m not willing to assume that lawyers who aren’t financially successful enough to write their own checks are any of those things. This may be a new market, but it’ll be a market nonetheless, and the incompetent, unconscientious, and dishonest won’t last long. Lawyers who treat representing human beings as another dead-end job like document review will fail.
Here is opportunity. Someone might make a tidy buck connecting working-class Americans with lawyers willing to work for middle-class wages. I’m not going to seize that particular opportunity at the moment, but I am going to try to help some clients who can’t afford big money, as well as some lawyers who are willing to do something to escape doc review serfdom, rather than just whining about it.
So: the anonymous document-review whiner didn’t accept my offer, but San Francisco bankruptcy lawyer Cynthia J. Nelson did. Writes Cynthia:
I’m four years out of law school. After two years in the doc review pits, I was ready for a change.
A year ago, I went in with a friend and opened a small bankruptcy firm. But, student loans have to be paid and marketing skills have to be learned. I’ve filed some cases but I’m also still doing review.
I’ll do it. I’m not in Texas, I’m in the SF Bay area, in California, but I’ll take any case that anyone cares to send my way that will pay at least what document review pays. I went to law school to be an attorney.
What does document review pay? $30 an hour.
Cynthia is highly motivated; she has a law degree and a license, a year of experience in bankruptcy practice and a willingness to learn whatever other field of law she needs to make a living while helping people. She is stepping into the breach between the working poor and the bar.
I get lots of calls from people who need inexpensive lawyers in fields of law that I know nothing about; I don’t get many calls about bankruptcy cases—or any non-criminal cases—in California. Maybe some Defending People reader in the Golden State will get one of those calls, think of Cynthia, and help close that gap.