March 6, 2014

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Programs Can Help Utahns Access Legal Services

By Peri Kinder

March 6, 2014

With many attorneys underemployed and looking to expand their client base, the Modest Means concept is a winning situation for both parties. Nearly 200 lawyers have signed up and are willing to take Modest Means referrals.

While most of the cases in the program are in the family law area, such as divorce or custody issues, there are a broad range of situations that can be addressed including criminal defense, wills and trusts, contract review, bankruptcies and foreclosures. Interested parties fill out a form online, making sure they meet income qualifications.

“We’re not for people who can afford to hire a lawyer, but for people who can’t afford to pay regular rates,” Gilson says.

Other Ways to Save

“All the time I have lawsuits caused because people didn’t want to spend $1,000 with a lawyer the first time,” says Thomas W. Seiler, partner at Robinson, Seiler & Anderson and commissioner for the Utah State Bar. “Now they’re going to spend a lot more money and a lot more heartbreak in order to fix the problem.”

If you find yourself in a situation where you think you need legal advice, don’t hesitate to contact someone with more professional legal experience than you. In fact, getting short-term advice can be an inexpensive option. Under Utah law, the Supreme Court allows limited-scope representation, meaning a client can hire an attorney for just a portion of the case. The lawyer might appear at a hearing, file documents or simply coach behind the scenes. A creative billing structure or flat fee can be fashioned to cover the limited assistance rendered by the attorney.

For wrongful death or injury cases, attorneys usually never charge for the first consultation, and then they take cases on a contingency basis. This means if their client wins a settlement, the attorney will take 30 to 40 percent of the reward. But if the client loses, the attorney gets nothing.

While some might feel that percentage is too high, it covers costs that include investigators, gathering records, expert witnesses and depositions. Often, an attorney is into a lawsuit for thousands of dollars before it even goes to court.

Another way to find an affordable attorney is to ask around. People active in a church, club or organization could easily get an attorney referral, or even free advice, from other members in their group. Getting a referral from someone you trust is better than going online and taking your chances.

“I would encourage them to ask around, because lawyers are very much people,” says Curtis Jensen, president of the Utah State Bar and managing shareholder at Snow, Jensen & Reece.

When you do sit down with an attorney, don’t waste time, says Jensen. Have all pertinent documents organized, labeled, filed and copied for your lawyer to review and determine what’s relevant. Organization can save a client lots of money by saving the attorney lots of time.

Also, be up-front about the fee structure. Make sure you understand how you’re being charged to get a sense of what the cost will be. Knowing what to expect going into a situation will help ease the discomfort or nervousness that arises when dealing with legal issues.

Legal Benefits

More often, companies are offering voluntary legal benefits to their employees. Employees pay a nominal amount into the program and are then able to use a plan-specific attorney to address any legal needs like reviewing closing documents for a home, family law issues, estate planning, bankruptcy or misdemeanors.

Companies like Hyatt Legal Plans and ARAG provide these services, which often include an online education center, a phone line for legal advice from attorneys and even comprehensive legal insurance.

Jensen isn’t convinced these voluntary plans will catch on and become commonplace like auto or health insurance, but for employees who take advantage of the program, he sees a definite benefit. “A prepaid legal service has its niche. It’s a pretty good plan—if you’re going to use it.”


DIY Danger for Businesses

Seiler has seen first-hand how difficult it can be for the average person, with no legal background, to win a court case.

A businessman contacted Seiler regarding a situation where he was being sued for a construction loan on a home that went into foreclosure. Instead of contacting an attorney immediately, this client decided to go online and found a similar complaint in another state. He patched together a response to the suit, submitted it to the court—and received a judgment against him for more than $400,000, the most allowed for his case.

Knowing he couldn’t afford to pay that amount, he finally contacted an attorney who got the matter settled, leaving the client responsible for only $80,000. “That’s a massive difference,” Seiler says. “It’s still a bite, but it’s not going to bankrupt him. It will be manageable.”

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