Serving the Moderate-Income Client, A Win–Win
by James Rufus Garts
There is a constant to the legal profession: Lawyers need clients and clients sometimes cannot afford the legal services lawyers offer.
The focus on this has grown as the country and Colorado have weathered the economic storm of the past few years.
What do we do as attorneys? We find a way to help people and find a way they can help us pay our bills.
Who is a Moderate-Income Client?
Maybe it is someone with a sympathetic case—someone who is having a hard time getting medical reimbursements from their ex-spouse; the victim of a "slum lord"; maybe it’s someone whose debts (or their debtors) have become a problem and they simply need help negotiating resolutions. Maybe that moderate-income client is someone who is willing to take a chance on a new lawyer in exchange for a discounted rate. Frankly, that moderate-income client may be the next person who walks in the door when your book of work is a little light.
No matter who that moderate-income client is on any given day, we know that there remains a pool of underserved clients. Statistics show that pool of clients is only getting larger, with the Brennan Center for Justice estimating that 80 percent of low-income people have trouble getting representation in civil court matters.
Local Efforts Connect Clients in Need of Attorneys
The Colorado Bar Association recently developed the Modest Means Task Force to study and share how lawyers of all stripes can serve the moderate-income client. Plenty of lawyers already have developed a successful practice that integrates moderate-income clients, but some of us have struggled and failed. The task force exists to develop a plan to increase the rate of success.
A variety of programs help lawyers find low-income clients, including the Colorado Lawyers Committee (coloradolawyerscommittee.org), Colorado Legal Services (coloradolegalservices.org), Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center (rockymountainchildrenslawcenter.org), Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (rmian.org), and the Denver Bar Association’s Metro Volunteer Lawyers (metrovolunteerlawyers.org).
Even so, many attorneys, though willing, have not yet figured out how to develop and maintain a practice with clients paying less than $100 per hour for their time.
We all know the overhead for lawyers is huge, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to manage a practice at $50 per hour. A business plan and willingness to take a little risk is necessary. The Modest Means Task Force hopes to have business plan proposals available in the coming months for moderate income-type practices. For immediate resources, interested attorneys may visit the CBA’s Lending Library for "Limited Scope Legal Services" and "Unbundling Legal Services." Visit bit.ly/LendLib for more information.
Considerations with Moderate-Income Clients
Whether it is because you want to help someone, desire the experience of a new client with new problems, or simply need the income from a client who has an easily recognizable and solvable problem, working with moderate-income clients as a regular component of your practice is a no-lose situation.
There might be some drawbacks to this sort of practice. You do not earn as much per hour as you might hope—you might take a lesser rate, a deferred payment, or just provide limited services through a discrete task arrangement. Regardless, less money will go into your pocket than with a full-fee client.
Even worse, you might take on a case with an unappreciative or undeserving client. Sometimes people do not want to pay for legal services because their case is not particularly worthwhile. It takes a little skill and experience to avoid those surprises, but either way, low- or no-cost consultations with these potential clients can be truly exhausting.
Perhaps you are the sort of attorney who personally struggles with the loss of strategic control associated with discrete task representation. It is just hard to provide someone with valuable advice and then hear later that they decided to disregard your suggestions and pursued a poor course of action.
The most frightening aspect is the liability associated with practicing in an unfamiliar field and using unfamiliar methods of representation. This is something we all must worry about. Even isolated instances of sub-par representation are counter-productive for our profession as a whole.
The Benefits of the Moderate-Income Client
On balance, and despite the drawbacks, a practice that incorporates moderate-income clientele is valuable and important to the profession.
This is access to justice. Sometimes we hold the keys to the courthouse when the process just seems overwhelming and impossible. The lawyer who helps out a struggling pro se party wears a badge of glory.
This is a business plan. Lawyers who develop a practice, broaden their practice, or regularly incorporate moderate-income clientele as a safety net are just smart business people. Their lights stay on, they are not constantly working on cases at the limit of their competence, and maybe they get to put a few more dollars in the bank account rather than playing Scrabble while waiting for the next full-fee client to call.
This improves the public perception of lawyers. The attorney who regularly helps out moderate-income clients helps us all. We all have heard the jokes about the expensive and crooked sharks that some people think we are. A friendly and effective lawyer who provides services at a reduced rate or on terms that make his or her services available to the deserving client is a prize to us all.
This is a necessity for our judicial system. We all know that the judicial system needs our help, and we each can make an impact. Maybe it is the transactional attorney who can explain the risks associated with a particular course of action and drafts a tight agreement that reduces future conflict. Maybe it is a litigator who gets involved and helps to resolve the case amicably or efficiently explains the problem to the client and the court to obtain an effective judgment. Maybe it is the appellate attorney who helps to sort out the problems that may arise from time to time. All of these lawyers have done a service to us all to enforce the rule of law and ensure justice remains a reliable and well-lubricated machine.
James Rufus Garts is an associate with Gutterman Griffiths, PC, where he focuses on family law.