One California Bankruptcy Lawyer Steps Into the Breach


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.

(My emphasis.)

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.


4 responses to “One California Bankruptcy Lawyer Steps Into the Breach”

  1. Yep. Great post.

    There’s been an amazing market failure in law due to wage snobbery.

    We always hear about the oversupply of lawyers. Yet if there is an oversupply of lawyers, why do fresh law grads demand $125 or more an hour in wages? If supply exceeds demand, then wages should decrease. Yet you can’t find $40/hr. lawyers.

    And even those document review lawyers are being billed at $120 or more (and often $200 or more) to clients.

    The failure is due to wage snobbishness – or, if you prefer, entitlement. Why do lawyers feel entitled to $100 or more an hour?

    Some will call this a “race to the bottom.” Guess what class of lawyers will call this a race to the bottom? The same class of lawyers that have priced themselves out reach to of all but 5% of American wage earners.

    When you’re on top, everyone else is, by definition, vulgar.

  2. Hey Mark:

    I really like this post. I see this all the time. There are millions of homeowners who need help saving their homes. There was a story today in the Huffington Post about an unemployed lawyer who helps homeowners: http://huff.to/canHLq . She is doing pro bono work, granted…but she isn’t stagnating. There are quite a few lawyers helping homeowners who are managing to keep a roof over their heads, so it can be done.

    I am a former big firm paralegal who left to do my own thing. I see this stagnation among attorneys all the time. Attorneys have amazing opportunities to make a difference right now. It might not make you $400 an hour, but it is a chance to keep your skills relevant and keep a roof over your head.

  3. It’s not wage snobbery. We’re not being too precious. We are – after all – professionals.

    ‘Your fee will be a guinea, sir – a shilling to do the job – twenty shillings to know how.’

    But it’s not just about legal skill, it’s about time.

    As Clarence Darrow said: All I have to offer my clients is my time

    And – you rightly say – resolving criminal cases well needs a lot of time.

    Consider the market for other professionals and the time they need to do a job of work.

    Had root cannel recently. [Give me a lousy appeal bench any day.] One of the tougher gigs for a tooth puller, but only took an hour. I can’t imagine my dentist was burning the midnight oil, slaving over professional journals – or staring into his shaving mirror that morning; struggling for an appropriate wording; to set me at my ease.

    So, one hour of his time was not unaffordable for the working man. Indeed, I would have gladly paid more if it could have been shorter.

    Meanwhile, if you work for someone, you don’t really need an accountant to file your tax return. Accountants serve the self-employed – who pay them money to save them money. Since this is an utterly rational economic decision they don’t grudge it. Well I don’t.

    But those professionals who work near money are going to be well paid. It just sort of rubs off.

    Of course, vets don’t do lengthy consultations with their clients.

    Our quacks get huge salaries from the state. Quite right. We want our brightest and bestest to look after us in our dotage – and not distracted by the City or IT. I would seriously worry if, like Cuba, waiters earn more than doctors. Working time directives also mean they can switch off – regardless of care considerations. They’re now just jobsworths.

    For you guys, I assume medical insurance properly takes care of your doctors, for most of what they do, for most of the time.

    Unfortunately, legal expenses doesn’t take care of us. It’s not exactly a universal concept. Riddled with too many exemptions to be of virtually no practical relevance.

    So, we’re the only professionals who need serious time to deliver on the job.

    I don’t want to be too despondent. As Clarence Darrow (again) put it:

    ‘I am a friend of the working man, and I would rather be his friend, than be one.’

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