by Hon. Su J. Chon
The Utah State Bar Commission is getting ready to launch a new program called Modest Means Lawyer Referral Program (“Modest Means”).1 You may have heard rumors about it but don’t really understand what this may mean for your practice. Modest Means will benefit both the general public and Bar members because it will facilitate the provision of affordable legal services to those who might otherwise be forced to carry out their case on their own. For pro se litigants, this could mean having legal expertise at a rate that they can afford.2 For lawyers, the program will provide them with potential client referrals for paid legal services at a discounted rate.3 For the courts, this program could ease the backlog of pro se litigants who think that they cannot afford a lawyer.4
Modest Means will also complement the Pro Bono Commission to “Lend a Learned Hand” and reach those potential clients who may fall between the cracks in the legal system, earning too much to qualify for pro bono services, but not enough to pay for an attorney at the normal rate. Frederick Douglass said, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” Modest Means is a way to help this underserved segment of society in their navigation of the justice system.
What is Modest Means?
Modest Means facilitates the matching of income eligible potential clients with lawyers who are willing to accept those clients at a discounted rate. Modest Means is a voluntary program, not mandatory. Potential clients will complete an application to determine if they meet income eligibility requirements. Upon determination that the potential clients meet income eligibility requirements, the potential clients will pay a $25 administrative fee to receive a lawyer referral. The potential clients will be given the lawyer’s name and will be required to contact the lawyer to initiate the case. The lawyer will agree to provide a discounted rate to the Modest Means client either on an hourly or flat fee basis. If the lawyer is contacted, the lawyer will establish the attorney-client relationship and identify how the client representation will proceed.
What are the requirements for lawyer participation?
Any lawyer may participate who is in good standing, maintains a minimum malpractice insurance policy of $100,000, is willing to be placed on a lawyer panel, and agrees to offer discounted billing rates to Modest Means clients. The lawyer will designate the areas of law in which he/she will accept cases as well as the counties in which he/she is willing to appear.
What are the requirements for client eligibility?
The Utah Bar Commission determined that the Modest Means program would be available to persons who are at or below 300% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. For a family of four, 300% would be an annual income of $69,150.
Are there guidelines for fees and consultations?
The Program asks lawyers to agree to provide a discounted rate in order to participate in the program. The Bar Commission determined that lawyers should use the following schedule as a guideline in determining what that rate should be. For example, a lawyer may determine that a potential client may not be able to pay a rate of $50 per hour, but could pay $35 per hour. A different Modest Means client may only be able to afford $45 per hour. If the lawyer is able to provide services at such a rate, then it is the lawyer’s discretion to determine what the rate should be for that particular client.
Do I need to be worried about establishing an attorney-client relationship?
Yes. The Bar is providing a referral service and will not be involved in the representation. Modest Means expects the lawyer to run conflict checks and properly establish an attorney-client relationship through retainer agreements. The lawyer may also wish to independently assess a client’s financial means before undertaking representation on a modest means basis.
I’m interested in taking on a case but I don’t have experience in [insert law]. Can I still participate?
Yes, you can still participate in the program. We anticipate that free or low cost CLE will be provided for lawyers who are interested in taking cases in much needed areas, such as family law. We also plan to set up a group of mentors who will be available to take a call from a lawyer to answer a question on a particular area of law.
How will Modest Means help my practice?
When a new lawyer starts a law practice, some lawyers need assistance finding clients. If you’re on the panel, you may get a referral that may bring in a paying client. It will also give you experience in various areas of law that you’re willing to participate in.
Sometimes, a lawyer also wants to help the community but has already taken on a pro bono case. A lawyer can give back to the community additionally by taking on a Modest Means case.
How do I provide legal services?
Some lawyers may be willing to take a case and provide a discounted hourly rate for the entire representation. Lawyers may also offer services through limited scope representation, such as appearing at a critical hearing or providing specific services that both the lawyer and client have agreed upon. See Utah Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.2(c). The lawyer should determine what will be most helpful and cost effective to a Modest Means client.
Watch for more information to come regarding the launch of the Modest Means Lawyer Referral Program. If you have additional questions, please contact the Modest Means program at firstname.lastname@example.org. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.” We encourage you to participate in this program.
1. The author would like to thank John Lund, co-chair of the Modest Means Committee; Mary Jane Ciccarello, Director of the Utah State Courts Self Help Center; and Michelle Harvey, Pro Bono Coordinator for the Utah State Bar, for their special assistance with this article.
2. And Justice for All and Utah Legal Services conducted a study of low-income individuals and their legal needs in 2005 and 2006, and presented their findings in The Justice Gap. Some conclusions from that study found that: low-income households encountered 92,000 civil legal problems each year; 2 out of 3 households face a civil legal problem annually; and the most needed legal areas are family law, employment, housing, and consumer law. See http://www.andjusticeforall.org/The%20Justice%20Gap%20-%20Needs%20Assessment.pdf. According to anecdotal information, these conclusions have similar impact for Modest Means individuals.
3. As of May 31, 2012, the number of active Bar members practicing in Utah was 7,821. In the last three years, 1,220 were new admittees to the Bar.
4. According to the 2006 study conducted by the Utah Judicial Council Standing Committee on Resources for Self-Represented Parties, both sides in debts collection cases were represented in only 3% of the cases. In addition, 81% of respondents in divorce cases self-represented and in evictions 97% of respondents self-represented. See http://www.utcourts.gov/survey/FinalSurveyReptToCouncilfrJVB2006-11-01.pdf. The Utah State Courts Self Help Center has seen the number of pro se litigants requesting some general legal guidance grow. In fiscal year 2011-2012, the Center responded to 8,236 contacts on legal matters while providing services throughout Utah except for in the Third and Fourth Judicial Districts. The Center expects that number to increase in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, now that the Self Help Center is available to pro se litigants statewide.